The winners of the 2023 Nobel Prizes in Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics were announced Oct. 2–4, 2023. Awarded discoveries included:
- Nucleoside base modifications essential to the development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman (medicine).
- Quantum dots which provide color and light in everyday items like flat-screen televisions to Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Alexei I. Ekimov (chemistry).
- Very short pulses of light that allow for the study of electrons, or tiny negatively-charged particles important for electricity, conduction, and chemistry to Pierre Agostini, Anne L’Huillier, and Ferenc Krausz (physics).
Supporting Women in STEM Fields
This year’s Nobel Prize awards in scientific categories included two women — Katalin Karikó in Medicine and Anne L’Huillier in Physics — a rare exception in the history of the science prizes. Out of more than 600 Nobel Prizes awarded in chemistry, physics, and medicine, only 26 women have received an award.
This glaring gender imbalance reflects a long-standing issue in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce — lack of women. Women in STEM fields encounter roadblocks such as sexual harassment, lack of mentorship, invisible labor (professional and personal), and, all too frequently, outright dismissal of their ideas and contributions. Allowing these systematic barriers to persist pushes out talented, groundbreaking scientists such as Katalin Karikó.
More generally, diversity in terms of individuals’ identities — their demographic characteristics, training and expertise, and ethnicity and cultural identity — often means they approach problems and seek solutions in a different way than a more homogeneous group. It has been shown that increased diversity increases innovation and aids in difficult problem-solving. Simply put, diverse perspectives lead to better science.
Ways to support women in STEM fields include:
- Speaking up and advocating for them.
- Nominating them for awards and promotions.
- Citing their work.
- Implementing policies that support caregivers.
The Story of Katalin Karikó
Katalin Karikó was born to a butcher and a bookkeeper. Raised in Hungary, she received her B.S. in biology in 1978 and Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1982 from the University of Szeged. After obtaining several research positions at the Biological Research Centre (BRC) and Temple University, she joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 as a research assistant professor.
There, Karikó began studying the therapeutic applications of mRNA, joining the lab of Elliot Barnathan. Unfortunately, after her faculty advisors departed — first Barnathan, then David Langer — Karikó was left without a lab or funding to continue her work. When grant applications failed and university support waned, she faced an uncertain future. That is until, in a chance meeting by a photocopying machine, Karikó met Dr. Drew Weissman — the man with whom she would later share the Nobel Prize.
Karikó and Weissman discovered that when mRNA, a molecule that contains the instructions to produce a protein, is injected by itself into cells it causes a strong immune response that can decrease the effectiveness of mRNA. While this was not an ideal result, Weissman and Karikó learned something from the control experiment. When they changed the structure of the nucleosides, or building blocks, of the mRNA sequence, this resulted in a decreased immune response and increased the stability of mRNA in cell and animal models. A decreased immune response and increased stability made the mRNA more effective for therapeutic applications as human bodies would be less likely to reject it.
Despite this scientific breakthrough, Karikó was nevertheless denied tenure at Penn and, in her words, “forced to retire” from academia. She eventually became senior vice president of BioNTech in Germany — the company that would later collaborate with Pfizer in 2020 to develop COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, using the same technology that Dr. Karikó had developed years earlier. Arguably, the discoveries of Karikó and Weissman led to one of the most tangible outcomes of biomedical research in the past decade. Their work laid the foundation for the development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines that would save close to 20 million lives worldwide and counting.
Katalin Karikó’s journey embodies perseverance, tenacity, long-term vision, and a willingness to find beauty in “failed” experiments. It is also a stark reminder for scientists to remain open to unconventional ideas and to never underestimate anybody in the room. Karikó’s work almost did not happen, which would have been a great loss. Her story underscores the need to provide adequate support to women in STEM throughout their careers.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.