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.