Millions of people owe their health—if not their lives—to Dr. Katalin Karikó’s perseverance.
The Rosenstiel Award. The Grande Medaille Award. The Great Immigrant, Great American Award. The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize. The Dawson Award. And, just this week, the inaugural Bayh-Dole Coalition American Innovator Award—which recognizes those who have turned cutting-edge, early-stage research into products that benefit people and the environment.
Dozens of accolades line the shelves behind biochemist Katalin Karikó’s desk—all received since her 2021 discovery of the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology that led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
But what Karikó most wants to share on a late summer day is the recently published children’s book based on her life: Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines. She pulls out the book and turns to an illustration of her running as her then-young daughter Susan bikes beside her. Pointing to the picture on the page, Karikó recalls a moment as she trained for a marathon when Susan told her, “Mom, you can do it! You can.”
In Never Give Up, Karikó appears in scenes like this, supported by her husband, Béla Francia, her daughter, her family and her longtime collaborator, immunologist Drew Weissman. She flips back a few pages in the book. The page shows a young Kati leaving her boss’s office carrying a box of her belongings while her peers look on, disapprovingly––they didn’t think a woman could run a lab; they thought her hope in mRNA’s therapeutic potential was a dead end.
“When I am knocked down, I know how to pick myself up,” the accompanying caption reads.
The arc of Karikó’s career confirms her innate resolve. For nearly 50 years, she worked in relative obscurity. She returned to her lab each day, she will tell you, not because she sought a place in history, but because she was driven by her conviction in mRNA’s therapeutic potential, her unwavering confidence in the scientific method’s truth-revealing capacity, and her joy for scientific discovery that animates her every word and gesture.
When I am knocked down, I know how to pick myself up.Dr. Katalin Karikó
It’s the science Karikó wants to focus on, not her genius, the history books, or the accolades. Pressed to talk about the obstacles she has overcome, she deftly redirects attention away from herself and the crowded shelves of awards behind her desk to make two points: “You have to understand, it was not always this way” and “My husband built these shelves for me.”
“It Was Not Always this Way”
Born in Kisújszállás, Hungary, just a decade after the end of World War II, Karikó found her greatest inspiration in her parents. Her father was a butcher and her mother was a bookkeeper; neither were able to continue their education beyond elementary school because of the war. They passed on to their daughter the belief that she could do anything, teaching her, she said, “When something is not available, we don’t sit back, we create. Because if you want to do something, you find a way to do it.”
From an early age, Karikó wanted to do nothing as much as science. In the face of criticism and setbacks that might have discouraged a less determined child, Karikó saw in science the practice of persistence. When a Russian language teacher who disliked her told her that she would never get admitted to the University of Szeged, Karikó doubled down. Fueled by her teacher’s animosity, she devoted herself to her studies, working long hours until the university had no choice but to give her one of the coveted spots in their biology program.
Karikó went on to earn her Ph.D. at the university and worked at the Biological Research Center at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as a postdoctoral fellow until 1985, when another obstacle appeared in her path: The lab where she worked lost its funding.
In search of employment that would allow her to continue her research, Karikó, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter immigrated to the United States. Karikó and her family arrived in Philadelphia to find that the funding for the postdoctoral fellow position at Temple University for which they had moved was not fully secured. The fellowship’s instability jeopardized Karikó’s visa, so she took on an additional research position nearly 150 miles from where her family had settled in Philadelphia.
In the years that followed, Karikó continued her mRNA research, minus many of the resources most scientists enjoy. Few saw in mRNA the therapeutic potential Karikó did, so her grant proposals were routinely rejected, and she was denied a promotion that would have guaranteed support for research and graduate students to help carry it out. Temple University fired her and the University of Pennsylvania demoted her. Worse still, a colleague threatened by her research sabotaged her search for stable employment by questioning her immigration status.
“Science Is 99 Percent Challenge”
At so many points, Karikó could have given up. She could have sacrificed her hope in mRNA’s therapeutic potential––in which case we would be living in a very different world. Instead, she says that these challenges made her stronger, as a scientist and as a person.
When she worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Perelman School of Medicine, she did not speak ‘perfect’ English, she did not have a medical degree and she did not see patients. In this environment, cardiologist Elliot Barnathan told the Washington Post that Karikó was a “second-class citizen.”
Instead of being discouraged or intimidated, she chose to believe, “I can think about something they don’t!” When her grants were rejected, Karikó saw an opportunity to ask for help so she could learn to better express her ideas. When no one else believed in her, she chose to believe in herself. She was convinced of mRNA’s potential when no one else was and when the scientists around her insisted her research was a dead end. Millions of people owe their health—if not their lives—to her perseverance.
Karikó’s description of her perseverance through hardship is inextricable from her relationship to failure as a scientist––this is what makes her a great scientist.
“Science is 99 percent challenge,” Karikó said. “You are doing things you have never done, or nobody has ever done. You don’t even know if it is possible.”
Failure presented her choices: What Karikó chose to do with the setbacks that confronted her is what makes her a great scientist. It’s also what helped protect the world from COVID-19.
“My Husband Built These Shelves for Me”
For Karikó, her ability to keep trying and failing in her decades-long quest for success has been possible because of the relationships and support systems that sustained her.
Her parents helped her develop the determination and persistence that has allowed her to flourish. As a young mother in Hungary, she enjoyed the support of state-subsidized childcare—the lack of which she says is a key obstacle to the success of women scientists in the United States.
As a young scientist, Katalin Karikó had a partner who supported her career throughout its many ups and downs, believing in her so that she could continue her mRNA research. Her partner Béla and daughter Susan––a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing—supported her through long hours at the lab and reminded her of the value of focusing as fully on her family as she did on her research. Karikó taught her daughter, “Hard work is a part of life, and if you embrace it, there will be a reward.”
Looking back on her career, Karikó offers two additional pieces of advice for women in science.
“Learn how to handle stress,” she said, “because otherwise it kills you.” Try not to focus on the things you can’t change, because otherwise “you will get lost.” Instead, focus on what you can do.
Second, learn how to handle criticism; be gracious in accepting constructive criticism––criticism that helps you learn and grow––and understand how to differentiate it from criticism that only serves to undermine.
Karikó’s perseverance helped lay the groundwork for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, arguably the most important scientific contribution of this century. She proved everybody wrong, but instead of seeking revenge on the people who made her life miserable or holding grudges against those who doubted her, she chooses to thank them: “Without them, I wouldn’t be so resilient!”
In a world so focused on divisiveness and animosity, Karikó believes that her forthcoming book, Breaking Through: My Life in Science, won’t be a best seller because it emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining “good relations,” rather than burning bridges. That’s how Karikó lives her life: Rather than emphasizing her many triumphs, she leads with grace, respect and gratitude for the role that others have played in her successes.
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