Kati Kariko, shown here in 1989, worked for years in labs before her work would be taken seriously. (Credit: Kati Kariko)
Kati Kariko, shown here in 1989, worked for years in labs before her work would be taken seriously. (Credit: Kati Kariko)

New heroes have emerged in the development of the life-saving Covid vaccines — and that would be the women in science who toiled behind the scenes, often enduring well-documented discrimination. Listen to the inspiring story of BioNTech’s Kati Kariko, a Hungarian-born scientist who spent decades working on mRNA technology, even though she was demoted, failed to win grants, and had her pay cut. We also hear from Moderna’s Melissa Moore, who speaks openly about the bias faced by women in science, and from Moderna founder, Noubar Afeyan, who talks about how to get more women into leadership roles.

The podcast includes the song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” written by Eddie Schwartz, published by Round Hill Music and performed by Pat Benatar.
Courtesy of Round Hills Music, SONY and Universal Music Publishing.

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Toiling for Years Behind the Scenes, Female Scientists Finally Get Respect for Covid-19 Vaccines

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VACCINE ADMINISTRATOR: How are you feeling today?

NURSE: I am feeling great.

COLLEEN: Let's start this podcast with a moment that still gives me chills.

SUE: ME too. It's when the very first person in the U.S. got the Covid vaccine.

VACCINE ADMINISTRATOR: So we're going into the left deltoid. (applause)

NURSE: I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.

COLLEEN: It was a New York City critical care nurse by the name of Sandra Lindsay.

NURSE: I believe in science. As a nurse my practice is guided by science. I trust science.

COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I'm Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: We all know we have science to thank for the vaccines.

SUE: But we wondered...who are these scientists who probably spent years, if not decades, working on them?

CORINNE: She literally helped develop the vaccine that the nurse received--and that I received as well, actually.

COLLEEN: That's our reporter Corinne Lestch, and she sat down with...

KATALIN KARIKO: Katalin Kariko. I am a biochemist by training.

CORINNE: And most notably, for the purposes of this podcast...

KARIKO: I am a senior vice president at BioNTech.

COLLEEN: BioNTech, of course, is the German company that partnered with Pfizer to produce a vaccine that's 95% effective against Covid.

SUE: Kati and Drew Weissman, her colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, may well win the Nobel Prize.

CORINNE: Kati is so in demand -- and she’s a new grandmother -- I literally pursued her for months until finally she agreed to sit down with me.

COLLEEN: So just give us some first impressions here. What was she like?

CORINNE: Busy! And she reminded me of that.

CORINNE (FROM ZOOM): What is currently occupying your time right now?

KARIKO: Most of the time I am doing reading.

CORINNE: There's apparently 11 papers published every hour on Covid.

KARIKO: The last 14 months, it was 95,000-something publications came out on that topic. So while we are talking here, I am missing reading those 11 papers (laugh).

CORINNE (FROM ZOOM): Well, I appreciate it!

SUE: In today's episode, we're taking a look behind the scenes at scientists who worked around the clock to produce the Covid vaccines. Specifically, women in science...

COLLEEN: ...who must work twice as hard...

CORINNE: ...put in twice as many hours...

SUE: ...and face twice as much skepticism and rejection as men in the same position.

COLLEEN: Stick around.

*Music Interlude*

CORINNE: Kati's story begins in 1961, in Hungary.

KARIKO: Yeah, I was six years old. And I was not reading nature at that time.

CORINNE: But she does remember history being made...

KARIKO: I was watching on April 12th that Gagarin was flying around, because in ’61, actually, was a revolutionary year.

CORINNE: She’s talking about Yuri Gagarin...

COLLEEN: ...the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person to launch into space, fueling the space race.

CORINNE: But that's not the only breakthrough that happened in 1961.

SUE: That’s also the year scientists from Cambridge and Harvard first identified -- and isolated -- mRNA molecules.

COLLEEN: What exactly are mRNA molecules?

CORINNE: Before Covid, I’d never heard of them either, but they’re in the news now. I'll let 60 Minutes explain. They are...

60 MINUTES: ...molecules in our cells that pass genetic instructions from our DNA to particles that make proteins.

CORINNE: Kati would ultimately spend her career trying to figure out how to tweak those molecules and turn them into a way to deliver medicine into the human body.

COLLEEN: So, mRNA vaccines.

CORINNE: Exactly. But first, let’s go back to 1961, when Kati was 6 years old.

KARIKO: Oh, that's a very happy childhood and a very loving family. I have a sister, and my parents were very...not formally educated but very intelligent people.

CORINNE: Her father actually was a butcher.

KARIKO: I worked with him in the butcher shop. But he play on a violin and the different instruments. And he was somebody...

CORINNE: In small-town Hungary in the 1960s there weren’t a lot of modern conveniences.

KARIKO: Yeah, we didn't have refrigerator. We didn't have television set the first 10 years in my life. But I didn't fear that we didn't have. Nobody had. I didn't even know how a refrigerator would look or why somebody would have. Nobody had.

CORINNE: The family of four slept in one room...

KARIKO: ...and so it was very simple life. And we had yard, and we had chickens and pigs like everybody else, and we went to the next door for the milk because they had cow. We didn't have cow.

COLLEEN: Wow. No cow!

CORINNE: I know. But -- Kati was curious about the world, and that came out in school.

KARIKO: I had very good teachers, and that's what the most important thing. In grade school, sixth, seventh, eighth grades, in chemistry, we try to make crystals. I remember that how happy to see a crystal forms.

CORINNE: Kati always excelled. She was the valedictorian in high school. She studied gene therapy at university. She got her PhD.

SUE: How did she get to the U.S.?

CORINNE: Well, in 1985 she seized an opportunity. She moved her husband and 2-year-old daughter all the way to the U.S. to take a job at Temple University.

COLLEEN: Here’s a recent clip from an interview at UCLA of Kati’s daughter, Susan Francia -- who happens to be a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing -- describing the journey to America.

SUSAN FRANCIA: Both my parents are Hungarian, and my mom came over, she was a PhD in molecular biology, and she came over to work in academia and so my dad and I, we came over with her.

COLLEEN: Back then, Hungary didn't allow residents to take out foreign currency that was over a certain amount because officials didn’t want people to defect.

FRANCIA: This was the time of the Iron Curtain, and my mom was coming over on this visa supposed to be 6 months to a year, maybe longer. So we had to ask our relatives to take cash out -- U.S. dollars -- but you couldn’t have it on you, so they sewed it into my teddy bear.

SUE: Wow! Sounds like a movie! So, after uprooting her whole family, the stakes for Kati to succeed must have been very high...

CORINNE: Absolutely. But even though Kati moved here determined and focused and some might even say obsessed with mRNA, she faced challenges she couldn’t have imagined.

COLLEEN: We'll tell you more, when we return.

*Music Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’re back, talking about the Hungarian scientist who helped develop the life-saving Covid vaccine.

SUE: She’s been referred to in headlines as the “Mother of the Vaccine.”

CORINNE: But before Kati Kariko was celebrated for her discovery around mRNA, she faced an uphill battle -- no one really took her work seriously.

COLLEEN: Why was that?

CORINNE: I asked her that same question.

KARIKO: Oh, first of all, because it was so ahead of time.

CORINNE: Keep in mind, the world of science can move incredibly slowly. While mRNA was discovered in 1961...

KARIKO: ...but making in vitro, in a tube, that you can use it as we are using today, it was 1984. So there were 20 plus years needed to develop the molecular biologic technologies, plasmids. ’94 was the SP6 RNA polymerase was introduced. Previously, they tried to make RNA using bacterial polymerase and others, but it was not working.

CORINNE: Kati -- who left Temple for Penn in 1989 --- basically zeroed in on something that wasn't yet accepted by the scientific community. And other areas were buzzier, getting more attention and more money.

KARIKO: In the ’90 to ’99, that decade, was about the gene therapy. Everybody was the gene. And 1990 started the Human Genome Project.

CORINNE: Here's then-President Bill Clinton.

CLINTON: Well first we will complete a virtually error-free final draft of the human
genome before the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix.

KARIKO: So every time they discovered the gene, when they, “Oh, this disease, monogenic disease, oh, that one mutation caused that disease,” the idea was that, “Oh, we put it in a virus, and then we put into the patient, and then we fix them, they will get the new fixed genes.”

CORINNE: But the field of gene therapy endured a setback when a patient -- a young man by the name of Jesse Gelsinger --- actually died, during a clinical trial in 1999. That's when scientists realized...

KARIKO: “Oh, that's not that easy to use the virus to deliver corrected genes.”

CORINNE: And so Kati once again threw herself into her work -- which is distinctly different from gene editing. It's complicated, but mRNA doesn't alter a person's DNA -- instead, it tells our cells how to make proteins that trigger an immune response. But still, getting people to believe in her was NOT easy..possibly because some of her early experiments, trying to develop an mRNA vaccine for HIV, had failed.

KARIKO: I came to the US in ’85, we treated HIV patients, ’86, double-stranded RNA at Hahnemann University. And we assisted that analysis, and everybody died. So there are so many technical problems..

CORINNE: Perhaps because of that, or because -- according to her colleagues -- she is not a great grant writer --- or quite possibly, because it's hard to be taken seriously as a woman in science -- Kati was basically rejected for every grant she applied for. She was demoted at Penn. Her salary was cut.

KARIKO: Maybe if I have to make a speech one day, I might have to thank all of the people who's kicked me out because I wouldn't end up and we wouldn't have all of these things which we have.

CORINNE: I just want to share a passage from a commentary in NPR this past spring by Dr. David Scales, who studied under Kati as an undergrad. He talks about her commitment to mRNA, even when her own university stopped supporting her, which he said was demoralizing.

DAVID SCALES: It’s hard to describe what this moment means to people who have never worked in science at a university, but it is more than the frustration of an experiment not working or laudable work going unrecognized. It is an existential career threat. Everything you have worked for your entire life is suddenly in jeopardy. It is a forced career change on the assumption that if you can’t get the grants, you’re not a good enough scientist.

CORINNE: Most scientists would have quit. But Kati persevered. Her scrappy upbringing in Hungary might have helped. By the early 2000s, she was working with a new collaborator, Drew Weissman --- and things finally started to turn around. Here's a short clip of Drew, from Penn Medicine:

DREW WEISSMAN: When we started this, we weren't thinking about curing pandemics.
We were thinking about making new vaccines, making new therapeutics.

CORINNE: They kept making progress, experimenting on animals. Kati told me, every small success kept her going.

KARIKO: Because I could see always the advancement. Okay, it gets better. We can see, we can see in an animal!

CORINNE: And then finally -- a BIG breakthrough. Kati and Drew figured out a way to inject an animal -- I believe it was a monkey -- with mRNA that would basically instruct the animal's cell to make a very specific protein.

KARIKO: First time we could see biological effect. I remember that. Okay, we injected this little mRNA. And then the red blood cell's number was increased in the animal, and then hematocrit increased, so it is like treating anemia or something. So see? Okay, so at least one disease, we could treat; but as I play with this, I don’t think we can make it work with what we have.

CORINNE: And it would still take YEARS for Kati and Drew to win attention, but they finally got it from BionTech in 2013. There, they continued to improve the mRNA technology. When Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence for the coronavirus, in early 2020, the team at BionTech designed the mRNA vaccine in HOURS. And the rest, of course, is history. Here's NBC, from December 2020.

NBC: The potential turning point millions have been waiting for, with approval this morning -- people in the U.K. can start getting the Pfizer vaccine early next week. The first western country to move from the trail phase to vaccinating the public.

CORINNE: We'll be right back.

*Music Interlude*

CORINNE: We've been sharing the story of scientist Kati Kariko, who spent decades working on mRNA technology despite being ignored, demoted and rejected. It would take over 30 years until mRNA started saving lives.

COLLEEN: Wow! What a long, hard slog.

CORINNE: Yeah, and it would still take another decade and a half for it to be used to fight Covid.

SUE: It must have taken a real toll on her.

CORINNE (FROM ZOOM): I mean, what was sort of the emotional journey like?

KARIKO: Yeah, I felt many times that I am not good enough. Even at university, I always was worried that, “Oh, my God, so many things to remember, and I will forget…” Of course it is not pleasant when rejection, like grants, but I was listening, reading, and I always like constructive criticism. What's something that you have to take? “Okay, maybe I am not expressing myself. Maybe I have to ask somebody to read. Did I say it properly?”

COLLEEN: That really puts failure into perspective.

SUE: Definitely. And she is certainly not the only woman in science who has pressed on despite rejection after rejection. Just look at all the high profile women who helped develop the vaccines.

COLLEEN: You have Kathrin Jansen at Pfizer, Sarah Gilbert at AstraZeneca, and Melissa Moore at Moderna.

CORINNE: I spoke with Melissa Moore, who joined Moderna in 2016. She oversaw the company’s development of its mRNA vaccine.

MELISSA MOORE: So I'm the chief scientific officer of platform research.

CORINNE: Melissa taught at universities before coming to Moderna. She told me how difficult it’s been for women to jump from academia to industry because it’s such a boys’ club.

MOORE: But in the early 2000s, and then around 2010, one of the things that was really frustrating for those of us who were women who were at the top of our game and were senior academic women, is the lack of relationships of women with companies.

CORINNE: She’s working to reverse that by getting more women in top leadership positions and specifically on Moderna’s Board.

MOORE: It takes both allies, but it also takes women staying in the game. And a lot of times, particularly young women take themselves out of the game.

COLLEEN: Melissa also talked about how sex hormones and physiological reactions to stressful situations often leave women feeling less confident about climbing the corporate ladder. But...

MOORE: You cannot change the system unless you're part of the system. And so you've got to become part of the system. It's not going to change until we get enough people staying in.

CORINNE: Her boss, Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan, agrees. He’s one of those allies Moore talks about. He founded Moderna about a decade ago in the Boston area.

NOUBAR AFEYAN: We’ve taken quite a few steps internally to try to figure out what’s keeping us from having more candidates that are women, in not just CEO roles, but in many of the leadership roles, because we have plenty of women who are scientists, managers, leaders in their own rights, but not getting to the level where they are CEOs.

CORINNE: And he knows what it’s like to be an outsider -- Noubar is an immigrant from Armenia.

COLLEEN: He’s also an early financial supporter of The Story Exchange, which is pretty cool.

CORINNE: He told me that “innovation is intellectual immigration.”

AFEYAN: You leave your comfort zone. You end up in a new place. You don't know the language, you don't understand the concepts. You struggle, you adapt, you make it yours, and then you make it work for other people. That's what you do as an innovator.

SUE: If there's any good that's come out of the pandemic, it's that women in science, who worked so incredibly hard to develop these life-saving vaccines, are finally getting the respect they deserve.

COLLEEN: Imagine if Kati Kariko had given up.

SUE: We might not be sitting here fully vaccinated and feeling much safer because of it.

COLLEEN: And the mRNA technology that Kati helped develop may soon be used not just for fighting Covid but other diseases, like cancer.

CORINNE: Yep. From humble beginnings in Hungary, where she and her family had no running water or fridge, to cracking the code of mRNA.

KARIKO: Science is working on the way to find analog or some kind of precedent. Is there precedent for that? And then applying one thing to the other, so that is a good job because you're getting older. And if you don't forget things, you know more and more. Yeah, so it's good job, good to be scientist.

COLLEEN: We thank for Kati for sharing her remarkable story.

SUE: And we thank you for listening.

OUTRO: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review wherever you listen. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for entrepreneurial women. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. I'm Colleen DeBaise. This episode was reported by Corinne Lestch. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Noël Flego. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang. Recorded at Cutting Room Studios in New York City. The podcast includes the song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” written by Eddie Schwartz, published by Round Hill Music and performed by Pat Benatar.

Editor’s Note: The Story Exchange is celebrating its 10th anniversary by launching the annual Women In Science Incentive Prize. Apply now for a chance to receive $5,000 in funding for your climate-related research or startup. Deadline: July 31. 

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