Katalin Karikó, mRna pioneer, receives the first honorary degree in Medicine from Humanitas University: “Follow your dreams and don’t hesitate to learn anything from anyone”
The eighth academic year of Humanitas University was inaugurated on November 29 and brought with it the delivery of the first honorary degree in Medicine of the university. To receive it was Katalin Karikó, Senior Vice-President of BioNTech, awarded by the Rector of Hunimed Marco Montorsi with the following reason: “In consideration of the extraordinary contribution to the study and development of a new generation of vaccines based on innovative mRNA technology, including the anti COVID-19, further confirmation of the value of integration between medical knowledge and technological applications”. Karikó, in fact, is the pioneer of the messenger RNA technology which is the base for the development of the vaccine against Coronavirus. Born in 1955, of Hungarian origin, the biochemist has been working in the field of molecular biology for over 40 years. She has been vice president of BioNTech since 2013 and became its senior vice president in 2019. “I am very excited about this recognition: I have never been in the spotlight during my life because for four decades I only thought about working and doing experiments. There has never been anyone who has said to me, ‘Katalin, you’re doing a good job,'” she said from the stage. “This is my first time in Milan, a city I have enjoyed very much. Visiting it, I wondered why I hadn’t come earlier, maybe because I had some experiments to do!” said Professor Karikó.
During her speech she recalled her childhood and how she came to choose scientific research. “My mum was an accountant, while my father was a butcher, I knew how to make sausage as a child. But I was also very curious and had an amazing teacher who encouraged me a lot.” However, the years spent in the lab were often frustrating as well. “It happened that the experiments didn’t work out and that disappointed me a lot. In those moments, I would always read a sentence by Leonardo Da Vinci that said “experience does not fail, but only our judgments fail, promising her things that are not in her power”. This quote has always forced me to think critically“. But, warns Professor Karikó, “if someone wants to become a scientist, he must know that it is not to be famous; if he wants to be famous, then be an actor. And the same if he wants to be rich: don’t be a scientist”. And adds: “With my colleagues, we worked for years to find this technology, sometimes it seemed like science fiction. But we knew that if the result of our work saved the life of even one person, then we had done it. Today it’s a relief to know that vaccines have saved so many lives and protected so many people from COVID-19.”
Then Karikó gave some advice to the young scientists and women scientists of Hunimed. First of all, do a job you like: “We spend most of our lives working and it is important that we like it”. Then, “learn to manage stress: I remember when I was in high school – she said – and my teacher gave us to read a book on stress that I read. That book helped me stay on the path I was on without worrying about what it would be like. It’s important that you learn to turn bad stress into good stress“. An advice that, admits the biochemist, “to me it would have been very useful to have every time I lost a job”. And then: “New opportunities should be welcomed, you must always look ahead”. Fundamental is then the work and the collaboration with other colleagues: “When I lived in the U.S. I saw my colleagues publish in journals much more important than those in which I published. This is why I say to you: look at your colleagues because one day you will need them, you will need their work, follow them, study what they do and they will help you”. Because “you can learn from everyone: my daughter when she was seven years old came home and wrote a letter to her teacher to thank her for the year she had just finished, “I thank you because we have learned so much”, she wrote. At that time I was 35 years old and had never written a letter to my teachers: I started writing immediately. So I say to you: don’t hesitate to learn anything from anyone, even from a seven-year-old girl, and above all tell those who made you understand your value how important it was for you”.
Finally, Karikó addressed the “young female scientists: find the right partner for life. I met my husband when we were students, I married him 42 years ago. He always supported me, he moved to different countries for me. We had little money and our two-year-old daughter was always with us. My husband Belà Francia never told me “stop doing research, cook”. And when on weekends I was never there because I always had an important experiment to do, he never complained. Even when I received the offer at BioNTech eight years ago, he pushed me to accept it, even though he knew we would have to move to Germany. My daughter also grew up knowing that my life was dedicated to science”. For this reason, “girls – she concluded her speech – I tell you that you don’t have to choose between a career and having children, find the right husband who cares about your dreams and shares your choices”.