This year, find you inner Karikó
New Years Day is, for me, a chance to get some rest before setting off into what I hope will be a successful year. But it is so often hard to know if you're on the path towards success.
As Winston Churchill said, “success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”
With that in mind, consider this when you face challenging moments this year: think of Katalin Karikó.
Katalin Karikó endured decade after decade of obstacles before she profoundly changed your life and mine for the better. As one biographer wrote, “she [became] accustomed to rejection, disappointment and humiliation.” But that never stopped her.
Eventually, things shifted for her. Gradually at first. And then, in early 2020, all at once.
Here is a brief sketch of Karikó’s triumph along with what you might take from it as you head into this New Year.
At 28, Karikó earns her PhD in biochemistry and soon lands her dream job at a prestigious research lab where she begins experimenting with RNA.
At 30, the research lab loses its funding and closes. She seeks a research job abroad and lands one at Temple University in Philadelphia. She leaves Hungary with little money and no English skills.
At 33, she is offered a bigger job at Johns Hopkins University. But her boss at Temple, Robert Suhadolnik, is irate when he learns of her plans to leave his lab. He contacts US immigration services to have her deported. While she fights her deportation, Johns Hopkins University withdraws their job offer.
At 35, she finds work at UPenn Medical School. But the scientific community has grown skeptical towards her research on RNA. As a result, she struggles to win research grants to fund her work.
At 40, after five years of publishing her progress but failing to win research grants, UPenn declines to promote her. She negotiates a demotion in order to keep her job. Not long after, she learns that she has breast cancer.
A critical partner
At 42, she meets Drew Weissman, an immunologist new to the UPenn faculty. They trade gripes about the lack of funding for RNA research. They begin collaborating on experiments, testing the use of RNA in vaccines.
At 50, eight years into their work together, Karikó and Weissman have a breakthrough. They discover a way to modify RNA and deliver it into cells without triggering an unwanted immune response. They submit their findings to top research publications, expecting a barrage of interest. Instead, the top science journals decline to publish their research. With a few exceptions, the scientific community ignores Kariko and Weissman’s discovery.
At 58, after 17 years of working at UPenn, she arrives at the lab to find her belongings in the hallway. UPenn assigned her lab space to other researchers who had won grants. She leaves UPenn to seek a job in the biotech industry, where there is growing interest in RNA. The CEO of BioNTech offers her a job as vice-president, allowing her to continue her research.
At 65, amid a global pandemic, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman enter a medical facility together to receive the COVID vaccine shot that has been designed using the RNA discoveries they uncovered 15 years earlier. Someone shouts “These are the inventors of the vaccine” and the room of volunteers erupts in cheers.
At 68, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
This brief timeline glosses over the countless indignities that Karikó faced along the way. Many of her colleagues and superiors judged her based on her gender, her accent and her job title. She was known in one lab as “the crazy RNA lady.”
I think about the will it must have taken her to keep pushing forward at 40, at 50 or 60 years old. Toiling away in the lab, she had no idea that the entire world would come to rely upon her research and finally reward her contributions.
Among many lessons to draw from Katalin Karikó, two that stand out to me:
The power of partners
Katalin Karikó had a knack for recruiting key partners.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, she lacked privilege or access. But she relentlessly pitched colleagues and superiors on areas to work together. While most rejected her, it only took a few powerful partners to secure the resources needed to pursue more research. Her story would have turned out very differently without these sponsors and collaborators who recognized her passion and grasped the potential of her ideas. These partners included Elliott Barnathan, David Langer, and Drew Weissman at UPenn and Ugur Sahin at BioNTech.
We might not have a COVID vaccine without Karikó’s ability to secure partners.
Her superpower and yours
Buried deep in the autobiography she published last year, Karikó writes, “If I have one superpower, it has always been this: a willingness to work hard and methodically, and refuse to stop.”
What I find most remarkable about Kariko is her relentless drive in the face of repeated rejection and disappointment. It is no wonder that her daughter became a two-time Olympic rowing gold medalist.
However, hard work and determination are not superpowers.
Karikó's greatest asset is something you or I can summon if we choose to.
This year, when you face obstacles, I hope you think of Katalin Karikó. I hope you remember to summon her superpower. Because you can.
Here you can read a brief summary of Kariko and Weissman’s RNA discovery from the Noble Prize Committee.