I happened to stumble onto the story of this incredible woman whose resilience and persistence have yielded such a relevant contribution to science and medicine, one that we all will benefit from, now and in the future. We need to learn from her story. Yes, she is extraordinary, but what she endured is unacceptable. We can and must do better.
“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” said Katalin Karikó(FRANCE 24).
What if she had thrown her arms up in the air and walked away? And what about those who do just say goodbye?
Katalin Karikó, Hungarian-born biochemist, is one of the key developers of the COVID 19 vaccine, someone who has dedicated over 40 years exploring “how the single-stranded molecules (mRNA) of genetic code could be used to treat conditions from strokes to cancer to influenza”(Daily Telegraph).
“However, Karikó struggled to keep her position as faculty at the university [University of Pennsylvania) because mRNA research was repeatedly passed up for funding because the world was focused on genetic engineering of the DNA. She was told she was not “faculty material” then demoted, refused grants, and even threatened with deportation.
“Eventually, in 1995, Karikó accepted a lower-paid research position to continue working on mRNA”(The Print).
Karikó reported to the New York Post: “The [former] chairman of UPenn treated me horribly and pushed me out of my lab at one point. That was where I made some of my main discoveries but he didn’t understand. He told me I could go have a small office near the animal house for my lab”(NY Post).
Those who worked with her confirm the unfair treatment she endured.
Fortunately, Karikó had “a serendipitous meeting in front of a photocopier in 1997…[where] she met immunologist Drew Weissman” and recognizing their similar work and what they could offer one another, they formed a team(France 24). And what a team they made, eventually helping to “pave the way for the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna”(Penn Medicine News).
“Legions of scientists, including many mRNA specialists, have helped develop the Moderna and BioNTech vaccines. But it was Karikó — with the help of University of Pennsylvania immunologist Drew Weissman — who discovered a method in 2005 to prevent the inflammatory response in the body to synthetic mRNA”(NY Post).
What bothers me is I can’t help but notice that until Karikó partnered with Weissman, her road was all uphill, a very steep hill.
Karikó beginnings were very humble. She “grew up in the tiny town of Kisújszállás, 93 miles outside Budapest, in a one-room house with a sawdust stove, no running water and no refrigerator. She got her first taste of science by carefully examining bloody pig carcasses her butcher father slaughtered” (NY Post).
Karikó first began work on mRNA at a lab in Hungary in 1978, and when she was offered a position at Temple University, she, her husband, and two-year-old daughter immigrated to the United States from Hungary with $1,200 sewn in a teddy bear. In 1989 she joined the University of Pennsylvania as a professor.
Karikó’s story reminds me of what Matilda Joslyn Gage emphasized in her 1883 article Women as an Inventor:
“No less is the darkness of the world kept more dense, and its civilization retarded, by all forms of thought, customs of society, or systems of law which prevent the full development and exercise of woman’s inventive powers”(Woman as 489).
Because of persistent sexist and unfair “forms of thought, customs of society,” we could have missed out on Karikó’s vital contributions to a vaccine that directly impacts all of us, science that doesn’t stop with this vaccine. It has enormous potential to treat other diseases as well.
Karikó, now an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior vice president at the German research firm BioNTech, says that upon hearing the news that the research she had pioneered “was 90 percent effective in protecting against Covid-19” her reaction was: “Redemption!”
“Yes, I was humiliated quite a bit but now you can see that I was right all along,” Karikó told The Post while smiling and joking in her living room. “It’s all OK. I just love my work and I continue to believe in all its possibilities. I’m just so happy I lived long enough to see my work bear fruit.”
Karikó and her research partner are “now favourites to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine”( France 24). I hope they receive it and that Karikó receives the credit she deserves.
Katalin Kariko is a #Nasty Woman of STEM!
© Maria Dintino 2021
Gage, Matilda Joslyn. Woman as an Inventor. The North American Review. Vol 136, No 318 (May, 1883), pp. 478-489.
Goodman, Lawrence. The Brandeis alum whose research may lead o a COVID-19 vaccine. Brandeis Now. 9 Sept 2020. https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2020/september/weissman-vaccine-mrna.html
Kennedy, Dana. This scientist’s decades of mRNA research led to both COVID-19 vaccines. New York Post. 5 December 2020.
Newey, Sarah and Nuki, Paul. Vaccine breakthrough offers ‘redemption’ for researcher -Scientist whose work helped create anti-Covid jab risked her career to pioneer treatment. Daily Telegraph. 15 November 2020.
Penn Medicine News. 23 December 2020.
Ramesh, Sandhya. You thought coronavirus is our newsmaker of 2020? No, it’s science-made mRNA, its nemesis. The Print. 26 December 2020.
Trouillard, Stephanie. Katalin Kariko, the scientist behind the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. France 24. 18 December 2020.