Dr. Katalin Karikó – From Zero to Hero: A Journey of Hardship, Passion & Happiness

Hanoi, April 28th, 2021 – “Success to me was decades of working in the laboratory, solving problems. That is what gives me pleasure and excitement every day. The joy of a scientist, to me, is trying to understand the secrets of life, and hoping that one day those secrets can be useful to somebody”

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Dr. Karikó, along with her colleagues, Prof. Weissman and Prof. Cullis, became the Laureates of the US$3 million VinFuture Grand Prize from the VinFuture Foundation on the evening of January 21, 2022. The team of scientists was honored for the development of mRNA technology, the foundation of the COVID-19 vaccines that helped the world cope with the pandemic and quickly adapt to the “New Normal”. The impact of this scientific work has been proven in over 150 countries that have benefited from mRNA vaccines.

The woman behind this ground-breaking technology is Dr. Katalin Karikó, currently working at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals Company (Germany) and Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Dr. Karikó’s path to her current success is a journey of passion and happiness as well as hardships, especially as a female scientist. Now, even when her work is known to the whole world, for Dr. Karikó, happiness simply means doing the job of a scientist: trying to find answers to every question in life and putting these answers together to come up with a solution to a dilemma, so that one day, someone will hopefully benefit from her research.

With numerous leading science and technology prizes under her belt, such as the Breakthrough Prize, Japan Prize… and the inaugural VinFuture Grand Prize 2021, Katalin Karikó is widely considered a success symbol and exceptional talent. But decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, success was not a concept that Dr. Karikó was familiar with. If you believe that every great scientist starts off as a genius, then take a peek at the story of Dr. Karikó – a woman whose illustrious scientific career started from 0.

(Dr. Katalin Karikó shares her inspiring story in the Talk Future: The Dialogue with 2021 VinFuture Laureates)
The teachers who inspired a lifelong dream

Even as a young girl 5 decades ago, Dr. Karikó had a passion for questioning the world around her. Dr. Karikó reminisced about her childhood memories of the simpler days living in a small house with her sister and parents. Her father was a butcher, her mother was a bookkeeper, and none of them had finished high school. Every day, she watched the chicks hatch from the eggs, or flock of birds migrating and returning to the garden in the spring. These small memories were the beginning of her passion for exploring every nook and cranny of the world, and which later transferred into her intellectual work.

At school, teachers were a very important source of inspiration for Dr. Karikó. She still vividly remembers her enthusiastic and energetic Biology teacher, who always asked questions to stimulate his students’ curiosity, and contributed to igniting her passion for research and the pursuit of science.

Science – A journey of challenges and failures

“When I was 16 years old, all the children were asked what they wanted to be, and I said I would be a scientist. Back then, 10 thousand people lived in my small town, so I had never seen a scientist. I didn’t really know what a scientist did either, that was just my wish at the time.”

Starting out as a student from a small town who didn’t know English and had never stepped foot in a laboratory, this served as a great motivator for Dr. Karikó to work relentlessly to catch up to her peers and advance in her research.

Throughout her career, Dr. Karikó was frequently faced with failure and rejection. Her road to mRNA research was not an exception. It was not a success that could be achieved overnight; rather, it was a long journey that required unremitting effort from the whole team. Dr.  Karikó and her colleagues’ efforts throughout three decades to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease were once considered futile, but Dr. Karikó never gave up.

For many years, her career at the University of Pennsylvania was unstable. Dr. Karikó moved from lab to lab and was never paid more than US$ 60,000 a year.

“The last time I was pushed out was less than 10 years ago. I was terminated in Hungary because we ran out of money. After that, I went to Temple University, Philadelphia. Then I was at the University of Pennsylvania. I was hired as faculty, and then later in ‘95, I was demoted back to a researcher. This was the kind of life I had, always.”

(Dr. Katalin Karikó giving her winning speech on January 20th, 2022. Next to her are Prof. Pieter Cullis and Prof. Drew Weissman, the co-winners of the 2021 VinFuture Grand Prize Award)

Scientific research is a long and unpredictable journey. Dr. Karikó believes that you can’t just successfully complete a couple of first experiments, call yourself a scientist, and then expect to make a discovery of a lifetime that you can work on for decades.

But it is also important not to lose confidence in what you are passionately pursuing. A research project started by a young researcher can easily grow into a momentous discovery that changes the lives of millions of people on Earth – just like how mRNA technology was created, recognized, and honored across the world. This is a testament to how true, meaningful science can come from anywhere and anyone, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, social status, or background.

“No one cares about materialistic values. Scientists only think of a functional product, and that for us is happiness. How many more seminars I attend, how many articles are published, watching your CV get thicker and thicker, those are the things I don’t care about.” – said Dr. Karikó.

Most scientists often lack the opportunity to see their inventions and discoveries succeed because a scientific work’s path from the laboratory to real-life replication and production often takes many years. There are countless scientists who are too old or have even passed away before they could see their efforts recognized and acknowledged. Therefore, for Dr. Karikó, the replication and dissemination of mRNA technology around the world is the greatest happiness.

(Dr. Katalin Karikó receiving a special gift from her Vietnamese friend, whom she went to university with in Hungary)

“Women do not need to choose between having a child or having a career.”

The age of 27 marked an important milestone in Dr. Karikó ’s life – becoming a mother. According to her, female scientists are almost always in a dilemma of having to balance being caring mothers and wives and making sure that their personal lives don’t interfere with their research work.

Dr. Karikó believes that a woman should not be forced to choose between her career and her family. She believes that if a woman finds a suitable life partner, this will be the motivation and foundation for them to be able to focus on their passion. For Dr. Karikó, that passion is researching and continuing to come up with scientific inventions to serve humanity in the future.

“There is no reason why women should make sacrifices to serve someone. My husband understands and respects the things that are important to me and supports me the same way that I support him. Setting everything aside to put someone first or giving up a career to prioritize your children is simply not a reason to give up,”

Dr. Karikó shared.

Today, Dr. Katalin Karikó is maintaining a great balance between her career and family life. She is both the Senior Vice President of BioNTech, a Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, and the mother of Susan Francia – a talented athlete who has won two Olympic gold medals. Dr. Karikó has been happily married for 37 years.

(Dr. Katalin Karikó giving talk during the 2021 VinFuture Prize’s Sci-Tech Week).
Science for All

“When I accepted the VinFuture Prize, I was thinking about how I am a representative for immigrant scientists, as well as the women and mothers who are always working hard. I have faced failure many times, and every time I have picked myself up to try again. When I went to Germany, I was 58 years old.  I am turning 67 this year, and I fully expect to continue working harder and harder.”

Because of the important research results of Dr. Karikó and her colleagues, on the evening of January 21, 2022, at the VinFuture Awards Ceremony, the heroes in the fight against the pandemic became the Laureates of the prestigious VinFuture Grand Prize. The award is a well-deserved recognition for their contributions to the field of Global Health Sciences. The life story and research work of Dr. Karikó and her colleagues have strengthened our faith in the VinFuture Foundation’s mission of science for all.

Science and human knowledge have no end, and also never have the same beginning. But all scientists in the world have the same mission: a mission of science in service of humanity and for the betterment of life.

2022 online nomination portal: https://online.vinfutureprize.org/nomination

For more information about the Prize:

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