Keep working hard, maybe someone will notice you

While the site was down, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their work on mRNA viruses. This is exactly the kind of thing that deserves a prestigious award, since it was a fundamental discovery that opened the door for all kinds of scientific developments. It’s the personification of Faraday’s statement, “What good is a newborn baby?” and it also represents a conundrum — lots of science is done that is not immediately of use to others, but has undiscovered potential. I’m kind of impressed with Karikó’s struggle — she languished for years trying to do this work, yet she persevered.

Karikó, the 13th woman to win the prize, languished for many long years without funding or a permanent academic position, keeping her research afloat only by latching onto more senior scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who let her work with them. Unable to get a grant, she said she was told she was “not faculty quality” and was forced to retire from the university a decade ago. She remains only an adjunct professor there while she pursues plans to start a company with her daughter, Susan Francia, who has an MBA and was a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing.

The mRNA work was especially frustrating, she said, because it was met with indifference and a lack of funds. She said she was motivated by more than not being called a quitter; as the work progressed, she saw small signs that her project could lead to better vaccines. “You don’t persevere and repeat and repeat just to say, ‘I am not giving up,'” she said.

Universities, pay your adjuncts. Also, I hope UPenn doesn’t try to do any fundraising off this work by a researcher they disrespected.

I also just want to mention that I lived near her in Pennsylvania — I didn’t know her at all, but maybe fame was brushed off by proximity. She described how she got the news.

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.

My kids went to school in Abington! Neato!

I should note that, while academia didn’t appreciate her work and neglected her, capitalism saw some virtue.

But two biotech companies soon took notice: Moderna, in the United States, and BioNTech, in Germany, where Karikó eventually became a senior vice president. The companies studied the use of mRNA vaccines for flu, cytomegalovirus and other illnesses. None moved out of clinical trials for years.

I don’t think most adjunct faculty can fall back on their position as a senior vice president of a pharmaceutical company.

I wonder how many adjuncts are slaving away, struggling to get their work out there, and will never get this kind of acknowledgment? Probably something close to all of them.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Worldwide, 11 billion doses of COVID vaccine has been delivered.
    I do not know how many of those doses came from Moderna or BioNTech but it must be a considerable fraction.
    If they had cut a deal to get one cent each for every dose, they would by now be rich enough to earn the respect of VIPs like Musk (just saving a few tens of millions of lives is maybe good enough to get as famous as a basket player.)
    BTW as we all know, the vaccines are as dangerous as the disease itself. So the 11 billion doses are the reason we keep stumbling over piles of skeletons in the street.

  2. robro says

    You don’t say it explicitly, but was her status as a “woman” a factor in not getting significant academic attention for her research? It’s happened before. It’s a good thing that someone took notice because otherwise the mountain of COVID dead would be much bigger and we would all still be living in isolation.

    And welcome back to the internet world, PZ. Pharyngula was missed. I only checked once every 20 minutes or so while it was down.

  3. wzrd1 says

    What I’ve wondered is, how many adjuncts are out there with nascent cures for dreaded diseases, but remain ignored?
    Trump, being the ever giving disease that keeps on giving, nearly fucked up one vaccine deal we have with Cuba for a small cell lung cancer vaccine. Bull in a china shop is a pale comparison to that menace.

    But, this reminds me, gotta schedule my COVID booster. Cell signal quality is degrading lately.
    Actually, it is, they switched over to 5G and like every other new tech rollout, it’s spotty and goes weird often. Just following the first law of engineering, “It never works right the first time”.

  4. raven says

    In initial studies, they discovered that mRNA is highly immunogenic, provoking counterproductive immune responses in the body. However, when Karikó carried out experiments with a different type of RNA molecule, transfer RNA (tRNA), she did not observe the same immunogenic effects. That observation encouraged her and Weissman to experiment with modified nucleosides, which she had known about from her work at the BRC. The researchers went on to identify associations between specific modified mRNA nucleosides and reduced immunogenicity—a breakthrough that resulted in a technology known as non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA, which was developed and patented (2005) by Karikó and Weissman.

    If you look closely at mRNA vaccines, they are major achievement that took huge amounts of effort and thought to get them to work.

    .1. In fact, the mRNA in mRNA vaccines aren’t mRNA.
    mRNA doesn’t work in vaccines because it is intrinsically immunogenic itself.

    .2. They found that if you substitute one base with a modified version, it isn’t seen by the immune system.

    A key aspect of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines is the use of the modified nucleobase N1-methylpseudouridine (m1Ψ) to increase their effectiveness. In this Outlook, we summarize the development and function of m1Ψ in synthetic mRNAs.Apr 6, 2021

    The Role of N1-Methylpseudouridine in COVID-19 Vaccines

    ACS Publications › d

    They replaced all the U, uridine, with N1-methylpseudouridine.

    .3. The packaging problem to keep mRNA from being rapidly destroyed in the body was another huge problem.

    .4. The manufacture of long mRNA molecules at scale was yet again, another huge problem. The manufacturing process isn’t like anything we’ve ever done before. It’s a lot of novel technology scaled up.

  5. wzrd1 says

    raven @ 8, I remember watching a program where one of the executives was talking about the difficulty in packaging the mRNA fragment and having to invent a special nozzle just for the process to work. Quite a fascinating program.

  6. hemidactylus says

    Of course there’s going to be pushback:

    “A Nobel Prize for a vaccine that didn’t prevent people from getting Covid and caused thousands of young, healthy adults’ hearts to explode. We are living in the Twilight Zone!”
    “most dangerous medical product ever released on the population. An experimental gene therapy”

    Meanwhile I just got the FEMA text that’s going to activate the nanobooooooooooooo

  7. acroyear says

    Heh – my family moved to Abington for 2 years right after I graduated high school (Navy dad), so my brother had 2 years of middle school there, 88-90. I was ok with it (worked at retail shops at Willow Grove Park) but was generally, since I’d just graduated/moved, pretty lonely. So the feelings are pretty mixed. By ’90 I’d given up on traveling back and opted to stay in my college town (JMU/Harrisonburg) over the summers from that point on.

  8. joel says

    When Yitang Zhang essentially proved the twin primes conjecture, he wasn’t even an adjunct. He was just an lecturer at UNH.

    It does make you wonder how many geniuses are toiling away at the bottom rungs of academia.

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