'Was forced to retire...': Nobel Prize winner Katalin Kariko shares her journey
The winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Katalin Kariko, said she was "kicked out" of the University of Pennsylvania ten years ago and was forced to retire. She joined the university in 1989 as an adjunct professor until her departure in 2013. Soon afterwards, she joined BioNTech, the German biotechnology company which partnered with Pfizer in 2020 to develop mRNA vaccines against Covid-19.
Kariko's Nobel prize, which she shared with Drew Weissman, was for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19.
In her first reaction to her Nobel win, Kariko told Adam Smith, the Chief Scientific Officer at Nobel Prize Outreach, that she thought "somebody was joking".
Speaking about her journey on mRNA research, Katalin Kariko, who is now 68, said "I have conducted all my experiments with my own hands" at the age of 58. "I was 58 years old and I was still culturing plasmids and feeding cells". She added that for nine years, she frequently commuted to Germany, where the company was located, from the US.
Kariko also paid tribute to her mother who passed away in 2018, and said, "My mother always listened to the announcement of the Nobel Prize and she would tell me, the next time they announce it, maybe you will get it. You know, I was laughing. I was not even a professor and didn't have a team. I told my mom, don't listen to it. And she said, 'But you work so hard' and I told her that all scientists work very hard".
The Nobel prize winner also had some advice for other women scientists. She said they can have it all without choosing between their research and their families. "As a woman and a mother, I try to tell fellow female scientists that you don't have to choose between having a family. You can have it, you don't have to just assist your child. Your child will watch you and then they will do it because that's what counts -- the example that you present," said Katalin Kariko.
The Nobel prize winner has a daughter, Susan Francia, who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist rower and a five-time world champion.
Katalin Kariko said she draws inspiration from Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian scientist, whose book she read when she was 16.
She added that when she was terminated from University of Pennsylvania, she didn't spend time feeling sorry and asking, 'why me?'.
"You have to spend all your energy on seeking what is next and what can I do?" said Katalin Kariko.
She also spoke about her dynamics with her research partner Drew Weissman and said they have very different personalities but are very similar inside the lab. "Once Drew told me, 'Kati from A to B, you go zigzag and I go straight'," said Kariko.
Katalin Kariko was born in Hungary and she moved to the US in 1985 after the lab she was working at lost funding. After joining BioNTech as its vice president in 2013, she was promoted as the company's senior vice president in 2019.