Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Katalin Karikó, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was your typical scientist — toiling away out of sight of the world to push the envelope of knowledge in her chosen area of interest. For Katalin that meant experiment after experiment designed to understand and leverage the therapeutic potential of messenger RNA (mRNA). Post-pandemic, Dr. Karikó is one of an elite group of Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Indeed, you may recognize her name as she, together with Drew Weissman, made a critical breakthrough at the University of Pennsylvania that allowed for the development of successful COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Breaking Through: My Life in Science is Dr. Karikó’s autobiography.

Published in 2023, the book is a great read for anyone interested in learning more about Dr. Karikó’s life and work. Growing up in Hungary after World War II, Katalin wrote of a simple existence as a butcher’s daughter living in a small home without running water, helping her family haul sawdust from a local toy factory to heat it. Like Maurice Hilleman, a prolific vaccinologist from Montana, Karikó described how her early childhood was full of science learned from the tasks of daily living. She described her school years and her own understanding early on that “What I lacked in natural ability, I could make up for in effort … What we practice, we strengthen. I practiced being an excellent student …” (pp.39-40). After realizing her penchant for biology, Kariko worked to gain entry to one of the limited number of university seats available in her country, going on to describe her professional experiences as well as her personal ones, including getting married, moving to Philadelphia for her work, and raising a daughter, who herself went on to be an Olympic gold medalist.

But perhaps even more importantly, Dr. Karikó’s story offers a wonderful window into the practice of science. As Karikó writes in the prologue,

“A woman sits down at a lab bench. From the outside, the scene may not look like much … Perhaps a nearby window lets in a bit of natural light; maybe not … Maybe the woman is the first to arrive … She’ll sit for hours without getting up. She may just sit for forty years. If you were watching the scene from the outside, you’d grow bored, and quickly. And who could blame you? She’s just sitting there. From the inside, though, it’s a different story.” (xi-xii)

Kariko is the truest of scientists. She did not do her work aiming for accolades or a Nobel Prize. She did it satisfied by the possibility that she may contribute to our collective understanding of the world and that someday, maybe even after her life had ended, what she learned might contribute to a breakthrough that would change lives. And, while she realized this possibility at the height of her career in response to a global pandemic, her story is inspiring for the quiet moments before that realization — for the highs and lows of a career in science and for the contributions that came from the steadfast dedication of a girl from an adobe hut in Hungary, one who didn’t let others define her — even when hers was an approach not condoned by those overseeing the Ivory Tower.

To be inspired, check out Breaking Through: My Life in Science: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Penguin Random House, with links to other booksellers.

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