Driven by curiosity and a sense of discovery

Dr. Robert SteinerDr. Robert Steiner selected for 2016 Richard T. Jones Distinguished Alumnus Scientist Award

April 26, 2016

Robert A. Steiner, Ph.D. '76, starts every email to the students and researchers in his lab the same way: "Dear CoD." 

"CoD" stands for "Corps of Discovery," the name Meriwether Lewis and William Clark gave their expedition as they traversed the Louisiana Purchase to Oregon territory in 1804. Dr. Steiner thinks of the work he and his lab does as a process of discovery and scientific inquiry. 

Dr. Steiner is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and physiology and biophysics at University of Washington. His 40-year teaching and research career has focused on neuroendocrinology and understanding how the brain communicates with, and regulates, the human reproductive system. 

Among the many questions Dr. Steiner has investigated: How does the brain control a woman's 28-day menstrual cycle? What causes puberty to start at a particular age? How does the brain know how much estrogen or testosterone the body is producing? Why are thinner women (such as ballet dancers or people who suffer from anorexia) infertile? 

"You start thinking"

Dr. Steiner and his lab have made pioneering advancements, including discovering that leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, can tell the reproductive system how fat or thin a woman is –and therefore, whether a woman has the "caloric reserves" to have a successful pregnancy. 

He's found that a person's reproductive system, metabolism, weight and diet are "inextricably linked." His research and lab are also well known for identifying, at the cellular and molecular level, specific neurotransmitters that regulate the secretion of hormones.

"This is the brain in action," Dr. Steiner stated.

Each time, a discovery leads to more questions. "You start thinking about things and you become turned on and fascinated by the questions," Dr. Steiner said. "It just feeds on itself, and it feeds on conversations that take place with friends and students and mentors and colleagues." 

His curiosity is infectious and inspires his students. "It's really fun to have discussions with him about possible research questions," said Simina Popa, Ph.D., a molecular biologist in Seattle who completed research as an undergraduate and as a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Steiner's lab. "I fondly remember engaging in discussion with Robert and other members of CoD, staying in the lab until two in the morning."

Dr. Popa is known for discovering that GnRH neurons –brain cells that control the release of hormones –express the receptor for kisspeptin, a protein that triggers the release of hormones during puberty. Dr. Steiner says the discovery was a watershed moment in neuroendrincology. 

"My heart was racing," Dr. Popa remembered. "I was probably the only one in the world who knew at that moment. I sent an email to Robert and to my mentor in the lab describing what I saw. Less than five minutes later, the phone rang. It was Robert! It was a very exciting time in the lab." 

Corps of discovery

Dr. Steiner's interest in neuroendocrinology began at OHSU, where he worked with John A. Resko, Ph.D., former chair and professor of physiology and pharmacology in the OHSU School of Medicine and long-time Oregon National Primate Research Center scientist. 

An internationally-recognized authority on the actions of sex steroids in the fetal brain and the neuroendocrine control of gonadotropin secretion, Dr. Resko now has an award named in his honor for faculty research and mentoring achievement and outstanding student dissertation. 

"I followed in his footsteps," Dr. Steiner explained. 

Dr. Steiner has mentored over 35 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and says those relationships have been the most rewarding part of his career. He approaches mentorship with an egalitarian attitude –he insists, for instance, that his students call him Robert.

"We are part of the same corps of discovery," he said. "Maybe I'm a bit more experienced and read a bit more. But one of the things that unites this process of discovery is that no one, neither the mentor nor the mentee, knows the answer. We're all on the same level. I can only sit down with [my students] and work with them to try to figure out the right direction to go, first of all, and to try to respond thoughtfully to disappointment, which is an inevitable part of discovery." 

His students has always given him the courage, he says, to "investigate a problem, no matter how hard it is."

"A superb mentor" 

Daniel Marks, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine, wrote his doctoral dissertation under Dr. Steiner's tutelage and credits him with helping launch his career. 

"He was and is a superb mentor, demonstrating the ideal mixture of patience and pressure to help his mentees achieve and exceed their goals," Dr. Marks said.  

Dr. Popa is similarly grateful. "My time in the Steiner lab, and my interactions with him, have profoundly shaped who I am –not just as a scientist, writer and speaker, but also, as an individual," she said.

Both describe Dr. Steiner as warm-hearted and generous. Each year, he hosts a party or hike for his lab and frequently brings his Bernese Mountain dogs, Fibi and Bates, with him to work to meet his "lab family."

Dr. Steiner is currently investigating what causes hot flashes, which he calls "thermal regulatory disturbances," caused, he thinks, by the brain "going into overdrive" at the prospect of menopause.Dr. Steiner hopes his research can help explain conditions like precocious puberty, delayed puberty and infertility and, potentially, lead to medications and other treatments. "These are issues we would like to have explanations for," he said. Together, the Steiner lab finds shared purpose in their process of discovery into the human condition.

Learn about the Jones award

Written by Amanda Waldroupe; photo by Brian DalBalcon