Breaking through : my life in science

Katalin Karikó shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023, with Drew Weissman “for their discoveries concerning base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19." Her journey to this achievement could not have been predicted by her, or by anyone else. Her life and work are remarkable in many ways that she recounts in this warm, insightful memoir, sometimes told with wry, humorous asides. The inspiration for the book is “a long-belated thank-you [to] all my teachers from my earliest days in Hungary right through to the world-renowned experts in cardiology, neurosurgery, and immunology who allowed me to work by their side–that everything they did mattered."

Katalin Karikó's life began in postwar communist Hungary, where she grew up in a one-room house that did not have running water. There was a spot of land where the family grew its own vegetables (in the most sustainable way that is a lesson in and of itself). Her father was a World War II veteran and a butcher of pigs, which he sometimes did in secret, hiding his work from the Hungarian police during repressive government regimes where collective work rules were to be followed.

When her family finally had a black and white television, a favorite program was Columbo starring Peter Falk, whose character was “a rumpled, a bit hunched, always searching his pockets for a pen. He chews on cigars, seems permanently overdue for a haircut …The question is how this bumbling everyman can piece together the truth [about a murder] when every clue points away from the murderer.” Just as he is finished stumbling along with his questions and turns to leave he says, “Just one more thing …” She says, “I’m not the only one who loves Columbo; everyone in Hungary loves him (... there’s a life-size bronze statue of Peter Falk, in his signature Columbo attire, in the middle of Budapest.). Columbo is–as I will be soon–a fish out of water amid powerful people. Again and again, they’ll fail to notice that my mind, too, is taking everything in. Columbo’s signature line, "Just one more thing,” is what Katalin sees as an important feature of scientific experiments, which can be tedious and repetitive, but one more variable can make a difference in the results. At times she refes to the Columbo line when describing chemical experiments.

During her childhood the Hungarian school system offered opportunities to the children of the working class and did not favor those who came from backgrounds that had more advantages. The curriculum was grueling and if students did not do well they would not advance upwards to a university education. Katalin was accustomed to hard physical work that was repetitive: helping to rebuild their family home brick by brick, working in the fields. So studying, memorizing, learning new information was stimulating and challenging for her, and she loved it.

She, her husband and daughter eventually left Hungary, and their journey includes a special story about her daughter’s favorite teddy bear that played an important role in the family’s livelihood. She writes with candor, love and humor about her grown daughter becoming a gold medal winner on the U.S. Olympic rowing team along with her academic achievements after floundering a bit in the early years of university education.

As in Hungary, in the United States she encountered bureaucratic rules and regulations at the university level. Later in her career she worked at Rockefeller University, which was the exception and does not does not have an undergraduate program and is not widely known among nonscientists. “It’s an outstanding scientific institution, deeply respected by working biomedical scientists. The school has no departments, no department chairs … minimal administrative hierarchy of any kind. Faculty are encouraged to collaborate across disciplines, wherever their research takes them.” And later on, at another academic institution, even with the great advances that she and Drew Weissman had made, she was plagued by petty, mindless, unimaginative bureaucrats. However, the times they were a changing, and COVID-19 did a number on planet earth that changed life as we knew it, and those with imagination and daring, appreciated what Katalin Karikó’s work had to offer. “What I will say here is this: It was a stunning effort, one that required courage, expertise, decisiveness, and precision. I saw these traits not only at the highest levels of leadership–Albert Uğur and Özlem–but also among everyone who worked on this project: employees, contractors, suppliers, and other professionals. If I was impressed by industry before, I was awed by it in 2020. What we at BioNTech together with Pfizer accomplished that year felt nothing short of a miracle." That miracle was the leading vaccine to solve COVID-19, and Katalin Karikó's work was essential to its creation.