Dr. Katalin Karikó: Doing Science Is Like The Rock Band Players

Dr. Katalin Karikó, 2021 VinFuture Grand Prize Laureate, emphasized the message that with hard work and perseverance, people can fulfill their dreams regardless of their backgrounds. She also stressed the significance of scientific awards from developing nations, which could capture attention on both local and global scales.

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Hard work and perseverance

– How are you adapting to the change of your current life, being under the spotlight, attention, and recognition from all over the world?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: My life changed a lot during the last two years. First of all, like every scientist, I like to work quietly, and I never crave recognition.

And all of a sudden, I was put in the spotlight. I tried to find what should be the important things I should say, and one thing was to educate the public. Every time a reporter asked me to talk about science, I took that opportunity and asked them that “together we have to help the public”. The other is I try to inspire the next generation and inspire those who are working very hard and feeling that they are left alone or something.

What is important that I respect all of those people who helped me.  I have built on their science because science builds on science. And whenever I accept an award, I always talk about all of those thousands, 10,000 scientists who work just like me for decades, quietly. Nobody recognized them, nobody tapped the shoulder: “Good job” and just keep doing and enjoying.

– You have been traveling around the world to promote the importance of science. What is your motivation for doing this? What are your main messages, or the most important messages, you want to convey to the audience in many countries, because the situation varies by country?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: I want to emphasize to today’s scientists that I started in a very small town with 10,000 people. My parents were not professors. My parents had an elementary school education. You don’t have to be born in some special place. You don’t have to be rich to pursue these goals. You can be just as myself, we lived in a house that had no running water.

It is very important that as a child, you have to even recognize what you like. If you really like to be in the spotlight, you should be an actress or actor. If you like that people will tell you what to do, you might have to go to the military. They will tell you what to do. But if you want to think about something, figure it out, or solve a problem, then science is for you. It is so much fun. Sometimes I wonder if I still get paid for having all of this fun.

I would emphasize for even the older ones that mental and physical health is above all. So I always exercise – every morning I go running. You have to select something which you enjoy so that physically you are healthy, and mentally. I am very lucky because at age 16, I learned how to handle stress, because that’s what ruins many people’s lives.

I would emphasize for those who are starting their career that does not compare themselves to others, because you will find that you will work harder, and you are not advancing as much. Every time you run into problems or something, you always have to ask what I could do. So, if your paper gets rejected, and your grant turned down, you have to read carefully and learn what you should do. You should change, and make it clearer what your goals are.

– You acknowledge that you never succeeded in academic research, but now you are being honored by many universities, including Ivy schools such as Harvard and Princeton, and international awrads. How do you feel?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: How do I feel about winning all of these awards? You see something behind me there. My husband built a cabinet for it. I have to say that I was very happy not to get any awards, I was happy about the reward I got in the laboratory. When people thought that I am not successful, I was feeling successful because I solve problems day after day. Somewhat I feel that these awards are divisive.

Some people turn against me just because I get an award. I didn’t ask for it. I try to share it when I am accepting. Of course, I cannot give it to all of those people.

I am accepting this prize in the name of all of those people with whom I was working for 40 years, I never get an award, I never even get a grant. So this is a mixed feeling to get all of these awards.

Courtesy of Dr. Katalin Karikó
Connection with Vietnam

– You have received many prestigious awards from many countries. But VinFuture Prize is one of the very few awards from a developing country. If you don’t mind, could you please share with us the value of the VinFuture Prize to you?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: When I studied at an university in Hungary, I had Vietnamese friends who were my classmates: Le Lan Huong, and Yen. There were other Vietnamese students there and we learned a lot from them, about Vietnam.

I kept in contact with Huong as we graduated together. When I learned that I am receiving the VinFuture Prize, my first thought was: “Oh, my God, I will go to Vietnam”.

Receiving the VinFuture Prize was also very special because I know about Vietnam, and this is the most prestigious award. My daughter came with me to Vietnam.

So we came together there. During the day, she went sightseeing and told me about what she had seen there and being at the university, being at this beautiful hotel. Meeting all of these students and the teachers, all of the other awardees and the committee, were also very special, and learning so much from Huong. I learned that she has a cafe. I didn’t even know that in Vietnam, you have a culture like cocoa beans and coffee. Then she invited also other classmates. We lived in the same dormitory.

It made it even more special. John Legend who was singing there, actually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, the same institution we came from and it was also special.

Scientists from developing countries are fighters

– Thank you for sharing very personal sweet memories with us. How do you see the value and the importance of global prizes from a developing country?

 – Dr. Katalin Karikó: It is important for developing countries to have scientific prizes, especially such a prestigious one, because it brings attention, not within the country itself but internationally, to the countries that have very strong scientific standards. Maybe not all of them are inside Vietnam, some are actually here in Philadelphia, others in California, as I met them. It is bringing attention to the international importance of all countries, including now, that Vietnam has this prize, and it will bring attention to those Vietnamese scientists who are doing a great job in Vietnam and abroad. This is important to bring attention to that. That’s what the prize also serves such a function.

And of course, encouraging all of the Vietnamese people, because then for the award ceremony, all of these people were internationally recognized. People will come to the country, make connections, talk, give talks, and educate, and they get to know the scientists in Vietnam and know the country because we had great fun there.

– Since you have traveled to many countries, I would like to ask about the situation in developing countries, because in developing countries, it’s more difficult than in some developed countries. How do you think about the importance of investing in and promoting science in developing countries?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: In every country, it is important to invest in science, because science is helping innovation and helping the country to emerge and have higher living standards. Smart people are everywhere. If they cannot get a chance to get educated well enough, they will get lost in society. We need all of these people. I have to say that those people, who are coming from less developed countries are fighters, are working harder because they learned.

That’s how they were raised as children. They learned that hard work is part of life and they won’t give up so easily. Whether they are working inside that country or whether they go abroad, the best thing is if they would go abroad, they come back and bring all of this knowledge and help the country, like in the case of Vietnam or Hungary, they would go back and help those who are there, educate and modernize the system.

Photo by VinFuture Foundation

– At the Nobel Summit last month, they discussed the threat of disinformation and misinformation. Many people do not believe in science. In your opinion, what should the scientists or the scientific community do in this situation?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: So one important thing, I was asked questions by people who generally want to know “whom should I believe”, let’s say about the pandemic or the vaccine or other things. Science will correct itself. As data will be gathered, more data will be available. We will know where the truth is. You have to believe the science. At present, maybe the science is not decisive. They don’t know, they don’t have enough data.

But sooner or later, we will. I told them that the criticism is not bad. When I arrived in the United States in 1985, I was reading that Peter H. Duesberg – a famous virologist, and member of the American Academy of Science – said that HIV, the virus, is not causing AIDS. That was what he said, there is no proof. This is science, we are always criticizing ourselves also. As data accumulated, it became clear that the virus is causing AIDS.

Scientists were still holding on to that. That, at one point, became counterproductive. But criticism and arguing are a good part of the science. It is always part of it.

People are showing something, maybe the same data they look at and they understand differently. That’s science. That’s how it works. And then accumulating data, more data will convince all of us what the truth is about the process. So they have to believe that, and we have to get back the people’s respect and belief in science, the scientific process. That’s what I would say – the process – they have to believe the process.

Pursue science for life

– In a recent interview, you say that you have just begun a new phase in your life after retiring from BioNTech. What are your priorities now?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: As of October 2022, I resigned from my position at BioNTech. I am not a senior vice president anymore. I am still a consultant helping the company, but I want to focus on another type of research, which is not exactly mRNA, but is related to the mRNA somewhat.

I am working right now, on writing a patent related to this project, which is focusing on some type of neurodegenerative diseases. But I don’t really like to define because if I say something, people would say: “Don’t talk, go and do something because we are suffering”. It would be sometimes I feel also guilty that instead of spending all of my time helping others.

I’m doing something else as well. But I believe that with these other things, like talking to you, talking to other reporters, I also help maybe other scientists who feel discouraged or overwhelmed, help them to lift up their spirit.

– How about your research career? Can you disclose to me after the Covid vaccine, what will come next?

– Dr. Katalin Karikó: People are saying: “Where do you work now?”. I’m 68 years old, I could retire four years ago. It is probably I never retire. The science is something like the rock band players, as long as somebody is listening to their song, they are still on the stage and doing things because they feel that they have something to give. That’s how scientists are. During the rest of their life, they even cannot work on the bench.

They are still doing and thinking and helping to write and nurture the next generation. Specifically, I don’t want to talk about what I am doing, because what happened is when I talked about one disease several years ago, I got emails from so many friends or correspondents that are suffering from that disease. They asked me from time to time what am I doing, so I don’t want to give anybody false hopes.

Cover photo by The Harvard Crimson

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