Scientist Katalin Kariko, 66, was a stranger to many until a couple of months ago when she was hailed as one of the heroes of Covid-19 vaccine development.
The Hungarian-born biochemist, who specializes in RNA-mediated mechanisms, faced several setbacks and experienced high levels of stress, disappointment, fear of failure and frustration during her research career. For several years she never found a permanent position: she migrated from lab to lab, relying on one senior scientist after another to take her under their wing, and she struggled to find funds for her projects. However, despite demotions, countless grant rejections and profound scepticism from her colleagues, Prof Kariko ploughed on. Now, the vaccine approval is a validation of 40 years of her hard work.
What’s her secret power? A combination of resilience, passion and patience.
She spent years getting rejected. Her work, attempting to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease, was too unlikely for government grants, corporate funding, and even support from her own colleagues. “Every night I was working: grant, grant, grant,” Kariko recalled, referring to her efforts to obtain funding. “And it came back always no, no, no.”
By 1995, after six years on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Kariko also got demoted. She had been on the path to full professorship, but with no money coming in to support her work, her bosses saw no reason to continue. She was back in the lower rungs of the scientific academy while her hopes were slowly disappearing.
“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” said Kariko, who at that time had endured a cancer scare, whilst her husband was stuck in Hungary sorting out a visa issue. “I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó said. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Good things really do come to those who wait and display patience and once again, Prof Kariko is showing us the importance of trials and errors in our journey. She kept working without knowing if she would get significant breakthroughs.
This uncertainty didn’t diminish her persistence and passion in the long term, though. Like many other researchers, she set her own mind to make the effort to succeed despite adverse circumstances by changing existing behaviours or developing new ones, such as discipline, practice, or planning. Eventually, she reflected upon her situation and adopted different coping strategies.
Failure is often part of a researcher’s path. But if the passion is there, it makes everything worth it. If you feel stuck in a rut, don’t give up.