Along with many others, I’ve been waiting for this moment for over two years: the announcement that Katalin Karikó has won a Nobel Prize! When the report was broadcast on Monday, October 5, I jumped for absolute joy and vindication for this brilliant and committed scientist.
So, congratulations to Katalin Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman for winning the “2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for their work on messenger-RNA research that paved the way for Covid-19 vaccines.” As well as other critical vaccines now being rolled out.
Our original post on Karikó ran just after the COVID vaccine was released, late December 2020. While researching the backstory of the vaccine development, I discovered Katalin Karikó and was both captured and dismayed by her story. The unfair treatment she received and her incredible tenacity are the stuff of a hero’s journey.
Here’s our original post that was updated in August 2021: Katalin Karikó: The Biochemist Who Persisted!
Karikó’s response to one of the awards she received earlier was “Redemption!” so her response to the Nobel Prize must be redemption on steroids!
There’s so much to celebrate and criticize here, so I was heartened to read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education where Karikó recommends that instead of pointing the finger in blame at specific individuals at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) who demoted her and questioned her work and capabilities, her story serves a greater purpose to examine the systemic mechanisms that drive unfair and misguided treatment of marginalized scholars, which can and probably has led to the loss of critical discoveries.
“Katalin Karikó doesn’t want you to blame the university that demoted her, or the journal editors and grant-review committees that rejected her papers and proposals. She’d rather talk about how to formalize institutional support to ensure less-celebrated scholars and their work don’t fall through the cracks,” reports Megan Zahneis in her article Katalin Karikó Has Thoughts on How to Support Shunned Scholars Like Her.
The awareness emerging about Karikó’s arduous journey is illustrative and instructive and if it doesn’t initiate an overhaul in the unfair and injudicious approach of institutions’ practices, then it will be a missed opportunity.
“Yes, she [Karikó] said, funding and publishing systems are fundamentally flawed; they most often reward work that’s in the scientific zeitgeist and not the novel research whose payoff isn’t immediately evident.”
Karikó explains that without a couple of close colleagues going to bat for her, one who actually funded her for seven years and the other who recommended her for funding through his department, she would have had a much harder time hanging in there.
“That’s why it’s so important for academics doing unconventional work to have advocates who are familiar with its contours — colleagues ‘who are close by and can see that somebody is doing a great thing,’ Karikó said.”
This serves as advice for scientists carrying out novel research to establish these kinds of relationships, BUT even more important is for institutions to do what they can to assure the creation of these connections.
“Those connections were crucial for Karikó, whose unusual research direction and immigrant status compounded her reputation as an academic outsider. But not every young scholar has a Barnathan or Langer [her advocates] in their corner, a reality that’s especially true of those from underrepresented backgrounds.”
As a woman in a still male-dominated field and as an immigrant, Karikó was sidelined; it seemed at every turn there were barriers.
“Besides the disadvantages of academic outsiderism, there’s another structural cause for Karikó’s struggles: Systems of funding, tenure and promotion, and publishing aren’t built to uplift what Thorp called “adventurous science” — which is what, for so many years, the idea of mRNA as a key ingredient in therapeutics was.”
The hope is that Karikó’s story has an impact on these detrimental practices and that institutions do what they can to assist in establishing valuable mentorships that help sustain “adventurous” and “unconventional” science that may save our lives and the world.
“Scholars who’ve already made it could advocate at the university level for colleagues whose work they feel is promising but hasn’t gained traction. Grant funds could be pooled in a discretionary bucket and distributed based on internal recommendations, to help sustain work like hers. And, Karikó adds, institutions should reward advocates like Barnathan and Langer for helping boost their colleagues’ profiles; she said both men will be her guests at the Nobel Prize ceremony.”
Karikó’s advice to recognize and reward those who support others is key. This is a tall order but one that would make a significance difference and perhaps begin to move the system from a highly competitive one to a more collaborative model.
Ultimately, perhaps this change in the game would lead more scientists to focus on their areas of research instead of short-cutting or veering off their paths for easier, more likely funding and recognition.
“The sole goal should be to gain an understanding of one’s field, to resist to whatever extent possible the siren song of career advancement.”
Taking the higher road, Karikó has shifted the blame from specific players at Penn to the bigger issue, BUT what remains to be seen is how much changes as a result of her story with its lifesaving ending, one that has delivered great recognition not only Karikó and Weissman, but to the institution she refused to be pushed out of.
Now a Nobel Prize recipient, what Karikó really wants to do is “get back to the lab.”
Katalin Karikó is a Nasty Woman of STEM!
© Maria Dintino 2023
Zahneis, Megan. “Beyond the Blame Game: Katalin Karikó Has Thoughts on How to Support Shunned Scholars Like Her.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 October 2023. https://www.chronicle.com/article/katalin-kariko-has-thoughts-on-how-to-support-shunned-scholars-like-her
Zahneis, Megan. “Failure Revisited: Penn Demoted Her. Then She Won the Nobel Prize.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 October 2023. https://www.chronicle.com/article/penn-demoted-her-then-she-won-the-nobel-prize