Penn Gave Nobel-Winner Ultimatum: Leave, or Take Pay Cut

Katalin Kariko didn't leave, keeping up her dogged research that led to COVID vaccines
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 9, 2023 12:34 PM CDT
Penn Wanted to Fire Her. Now She's a Nobel Winner
Katalin Karik? poses at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Karik? and Drew Weissman won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, for discoveries that enabled the creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.   (Peggy Peterson Photography/Penn Medicine via AP)

Hungarian researcher Katalin Kariko looks pretty good on paper these days: She co-pioneered mRNA research at the University of Pennsylvania that led to COVID vaccines that helped save millions of lives worldwide during the pandemic; as of last week she has a Nobel for her trouble; and, just as icing on the cake, she raised a two-time Olympic gold medalist. She also has good reason to have a case of the I-told-you-sos. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Kariko grabbed onto the mRNA research in the late '80s like a honey badger, but, she tells CNBC, "In 1989, no one thought that mRNA was useful." With her grant proposals meeting little success, Penn told her to leave in 1995—the Inquirer says one official told her she wasn't "of faculty quality"—or accept a demotion and a pay cut.

She took the pay cut, noting in a 2020 book, per the Journal: "It's like Fight Club—when you lose everything, you are fearless." Kariko began doing research with Nobel co-winner Drew Weissman, and eventually they hit pay dirt with mRNA. The story goes thusly, per the Journal's telling: "Penn patented their mRNA technology. Kariko and Weissman tried to license it for their biotech company but couldn't afford the price the school demanded ... Penn eventually licensed it to another company. Over the past few years, Penn made tens of millions of dollars licensing the technology to various companies, including BioNTech and Moderna, that produced Covid vaccines." Today, Kariko is an adjunct professor.

Says Penn's PR director now: "We acknowledge and are grateful for the valuable contributions Dr. Kariko has made to science and to Penn throughout her time with the university." Others are roasting the school for its treatment of her: "Didn't you fire Katalin? Just asking," goes one. "Michael Jordan was drafted third, Tom Brady was drafted 199th, you can say 'how did people miss them,' too," says David Langer, neurosurgery chair at Lenox Hill Hospital, and a former Kariko student and collaborator. "The story is that she persevered." Says Kariko herself, per CNBC: "I felt successful when others considered me unsuccessful because I was in full control of what I was doing." (More Nobel laureates stories.)

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