First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023
“Nothing distracts me from my work”
“We weren’t sure it was true!” Drew Weissman’s research partner and co-laureate Katalin Karikó called him early this morning with some incredible news – they had both been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The two have a 20 year history of working together. “We both have sleep disturbances,” he says in this conversation with the Nobel Prize’s Adam Smith, “so usually around 3 to 5 a.m. we would be emailing each other with new ideas.” Speaking just after he had heard of the award, he stresses that despite his new found notoriety and all the claims on his time, “Nothing distracts me from my work.” As to the effect of the Nobel Prize: “This just encourages us more!”
Drew Weissman: Hello?
Adam Smith: Hello, may I speak to Drew Weissman please?
AS: Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize.
DW: Hi, how are you?
AS: Very well thank you, many, many congratulations on the news.
DW: Thank you.
AS: It must be very early there, how did you receive the call?
DW: Yes, I got the call a little while ago, I got a call from Kati a little bit earlier.
AS: OK, so she actually broke the news to you that you’d been awarded together?
DW: But we weren’t sure it was true, we thought that maybe somebody was playing a joke on us.
AS: Apart from slight disbelief, what was your first reaction?
DW: You know, it’s a lifetime dream. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t work for or look forward to awards. But you know, the Nobel is the ultimate recognition of work, so it is a wonderful experience.
AS: Have you ever imagined yourself in this moment before?
DW: You know, starting as a basic scientist doing work in high school it was always a dream but I never imagined it would happen
AS: When I spoke to Kati earlier, she described your scientific conversations, you’re two very different personalities, but your scientific conversations as being very much ‘alive’, which I thought was a lovely word to use about the way you interact.
DW: For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together. And talking and discussing new data. We both have sleep disturbances so usually around three to five a.m. we would be emailing each other with new ideas. It was always stimulating; we were always talking about science.
AS: Sounds a perfect partnership, and it also sounds like with your sleep disturbance you’re well prepared for what today will bring.
DW: Yes, no, I’m sure!
AS: I know you are very focused on bringing RNA therapeutics to the world, and there are so many things you want to do with mRNA vaccines still to come. I guess the Nobel Prize might be a bit of a distraction. Alfred Nobel I think wanted to make things free from distraction for laureates by giving them some money to sort of get on and concentrate on their work, but how do you feel about the prize?
DW: To me, nothing distracts me from my work. With the new notoriety that Kati and I have, we’ve been traveling around the world for awards or discussions. I got back from Dubai on Sunday, I was in Boston over the last weekend, headed to Thailand in two weeks. But none of it gets in the way of the science and I still meet with everybody in my lab weekly whether it’s on Zoom or in person. So, this just energizes us more!
AS: That’s wonderful. It must be extraordinary to reflect on the fact that all that work led to, in the case of the pandemic, being part of this extraordinary effort to save millions of lives through the vaccines.
DW: No, I mean that’s incredible. We’ve actually started a new group that includes people like Paul Offit and Ala Stanford and many others to combat vaccine hesitancy and misinformation and disinformation. Because as important as the vaccine is, if you don’t take it, it doesn’t work.
AS: Do you think the Nobel Prize will help in that fight?
DW: It’s an interesting point. There’s a large group of people who aren’t sure, who hear these, you know, crazy people spouting nutsy things about the vaccine, but they’re not sure, and those are the people that still believe in science, and I think for those people it will help.
AS: Such an important point. For now, may I ask, could you do me one favour, which is, and Kati has already done it, which is to send me a picture capturing this moment. I don’t know if there is somebody close by you that could take a photograph of you, or just take a selfie.
DW: My wife’s got her camera going, so I’ll have her take a picture.
Mary Ellen Weissman: Hello!
AS: Thank you very much! Hello! How very nice! Well, what a happy day. It’s a real delight to speak to you, thank you!
DW: Thank you very much.
AS: Best of luck the deluge of interest that’s about to …
DW: Yes I know, I’m trying to find a disguise to wear!
AS: I don’t think it will work! Anyway, many, many thanks and congratulations again!
DW: Great. Thank you!
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