Interview, December 2023
“I dreamt about doing research, not getting an award”
If you had the chance to meet a Nobel Prize laureate, what would you ask? Emanuelle Tavares, a biomedical student at the University of Skövde, met 2023 medicine laureate Katalin Karikó on 5 December 2023 to ask questions about her research, her failures and her success. Karikó explains how despite being terminated from her position and considered ‘unsuccessful’ she always tied success to what she was learning in the lab – and describes how it feels to see your work having a real impact on people’s lives.
First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023
“You have to focus on the things you can change”
The call from Stockholm woke Katalin Karikó at her home outside Philadelphia. Initially in disbelief, in this interview with Adam Smith, recorded soon after she had learnt of the award of the Nobel Prize for discoveries that accelerated the introduction of vaccines for Covid-19, she recalls her journey from Hungary and some of the setbacks on the path to the mRNA vaccines. “10 years ago I was here in October, because I was kicked out and forced to retire!” Her advice is to not to dwell on the problems: “You have to focus on the things you can change.”
Katalin Karikó: Hello?
Adam Smith: Hello, may I speak to Katalin Karikó?
AS: Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from nobelprize.org
KK: Yes Adam!
AS: Many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
KK: Thank you, thank you very much.
AS: Where are you and how did you hear the news?
KK: I was sleeping, and actually my husband picked up the phone. I am at my home in a suburb of Philadelphia in Abington township. And I was away in a conference in Cold Spring Harbor, and just Saturday returned. We celebrated 50 years of recombinant DNA technology. I met all of those people there, 80s, 90s that did the basic work, and I just came back.
AS: A lovely gathering. And on hearing the news – I mean you’re no stranger to awards of course, they’ve been coming so thick and fast recently – but what were your first thoughts on hearing this news?
KK: That somebody is just joking!
AS: How were you reassured?
KK: It was kind of very scientific and too much information was in it that somebody would just make it up. But you never know in these days.
AS: Now you know for sure!
KK: I’m not … [unclear] a hundred percent sure!
AS: Yes, maybe it’ll never sink in, who knows.
AS: Apart from the doubt and the reassurance, what does it mean to you?
KK: Adam, if you know about 10 years ago, I was here in October because I was kicked out, from Penn, was forced to retire. Then my husband supported me and said that, you know, when finally visited in Germany and found that maybe BioNTech is the right place, then he said “Just try it and I will make sure that you don’t regret.” Looking back in my life he supported that I would go, and for nine years I commuted to BioNTech in Germany. I did all these experiments actually, with my own hands, I was 58 years old, I was still culturing plasmids and feeding cells, so it is very unlikely.
I have to say that my mother, she passed away 2018, but my mother listened always to the announcement of who gets the Nobel Prize because she told me, “Oh next week they will announce, maybe you will get it.” You know I was laughing, I was not even a professor, no team, and I told my mom, don’t listen, and she said, “Yes but you know, you work so hard.” And I told her that all scientists work very hard.
AS: How wonderful to have someone who believes in you to such an extent.
KK: Yes, she believed, and my daughter she watched me work hard, and she became two-times Olympic champion.
AS: Olympic champion in what?
KK: Rowing, and she is a five times world champion, and I went to this, she was inducted in the hall of fame, she was rowing here and there, and I was always introduced like “She’s Susan’s mom.” I was Susan’s mom. And now that my daughter came several times to the awards ceremony with me, and she was introduced as “Kati’s daughter.”
AS: I must say, for me it’s a great delight to be talking to Susan’s mom on this call! But I suppose the message in all this is that persistence can pay off, in the end.
KK: Yes, to persevere, and I believe the first 14 years of your life, your genes, your parents, your teachers, your friends, they shape you, the person who you will be. I also, 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 over assist your child, your child will watch you and they will do, because that’s what counts, the example that you present.
When I was 16 years old, I read the book from Hans Selye. Hans Selye is a Canadian scientist, but he was Hungarian so his book was translated to Hungarian. His mantra was that you have to focus on things that you can change. Many young ones are giving up because they can see that their friends or their colleagues are advancing, and it seems that they do less and somehow, they get higher salary and promoted. I told that if you notice that then you already took away your attention what you can change. Because you cannot change that. And I told that when I was terminated, I didn’t spend time feeling sorry for you and saying things like “Why me?” You have to focus all the energy you have to spend, to seek out, “What next? What I can do.”
AS: Indeed! Let me just ask you very briefly about your working relationship with Drew Weissman. You strike me as very different characters.
KK: Yes, he is like you know. I brag, I am more talkative. But when you would see us looking at the data, we cut each other’s words! What it means, you know, we’re very ‘alive’. About the experiments, and we were very similar. But then yes, once Drew showed me “You know Kati, from A to B you zigzag, zigzag, zigzag, zigzag! And I am just like, straight.” But I told him that when I zigzag, I learn so much!
AS: Indeed, zigzagging seems to have been very productive! It’s been so lovely to have this relaxed conversation, I am afraid that it’s so early in the morning, but your day is just going to get busier and busier from this point on, good luck with it all, and thank you very much indeed.
KK: Thank you very much.
Did you find any typos in this text? We would appreciate your assistance in identifying any errors and to let us know. Thank you for taking the time to report the errors by sending us an e-mail.
See them all presented here.