13 Powerful Lessons from Katalin Karikó’s Autobiography

How Personal Experiences Shaped a Revolutionary Mind

Published at 18 mag 2024

13 Powerful Lessons from Katalin Karikó’s Autobiography

I’ll resume the discussion from the other day. Although it’s not a perfect book, Katalin Karikó’s autobiography is one of the most beautiful and interesting things I’ve read recently. Not so much for the scientific aspect, undoubtedly interesting, but for some… let’s say “advice” that can be gleaned from her story. I’ve gathered some of the passages that struck me the most.

1. The brain is malleable. What we practice, we strengthen.

Even in first grade, in second grade, I worked so hard. I tried to do everything correctly. If it wasn’t right, I started over again.
I worked.
I worked.
I worked.
And it turns out that the brain is malleable. What we practice, we strengthen. I practiced being an excellent student—it was an active practice, the way an aspiring athlete might shoot baskets. Like an athlete, I got better.
School became more natural to me. By third grade, I had dived so completely into school that I earned straight 5s all the way, and I never looked back.
Nor, I’ll say, did I ever stop practicing.

2. Sometimes bullshit men are lauded as heroes

ONCE , IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL , we were given a history assignment: to interview an older community member, someone who stood out as a local hero. Each of us was to take an oral history, gather the subject’s memories, then write a laudatory essay based on what we had heard. I was tasked with interviewing a veteran, a man about my father’s age.
My father asked the name. When I told him, I saw something dark cross my father’s eyes. “That is a bad man,” he said. I almost never heard my father’s voice like that. Hard. Angry.
“That man was cruel,” my father continued. “He is a bullshit man, and this interview will be bullshit.”
I still don’t know what my father knew about this man, or what he’d seen. But I took this in. Then I did what I had to. I interviewed the man, collected his memories, and wrote my glowing essay. But I did so havinglearned a truth: That some tasks are bullshit. That my subject was a bullshit man. That sometimes bullshit men are lauded as heroes.

3. Questions in the form of experiments

It is also that Selye somehow understands how I want to think, the way I want to define a big question, then begin zeroing in, systematically and logically, on clear and specific answers. Early in the book, Selye notes that nature “rarely replies to questions unless they are put to her in the form of experiments, to which she can say yes or no.” I read this line again and again: questions…in the form of experiments…she can say yes or no. One question at a time. From many such questions, from many yes-or-no answers, a mosaic grows.

4. There’s almost always just one more thing

And not just because Columbo is—as I will be soon—a fish out of water amid powerful people. (They’ll look right through me, those people. Again and again, they’ll fail to notice that my mind, too, is taking everything in.) But rather because of that line: Just one more thing. Here’s the truth: Scientific investigation can be tedious. It generates a lot of data, and sometimes the bulk of that data appears to point in one direction. It can be tempting to look for the data that fit one’s existing narrative, and when you find that data—which you will—to feel that you’ve done your job. But you must do your experiments correctly. You ask one question at a time. Then you change just one variable and ask again. And then you change the next variable. And then the next. Just one more thing. There’s almost always just one more thing.

5. You should know about things fellow scientists are doing

You are going to be a scientist,” János said, interrupting my thoughts. “You should know about things fellow scientists are doing and have something to say.

6. That’s the thing about potential: It always begins as nothing.

Each of those obstacles would always be more tangible than contributions I hadn’t yet made. Obstacles have shape and structure; you can see them. One’s future impact, by contrast, remains invisible, hypothetical, at least until the future finally arrives.
Nobody would ever knock on my door and say, “Kati, this world needs the research you haven’t done, the discoveries you haven’t yet made.” My contributions, at this point, didn’t exist. That’s the thing about potential: It always begins as nothing. And if that empty space was ever to be filled in, if it was ever to become something, it would be up to me.
I returned to work, and from that moment forward, I kept my pace up. No matter how sick I felt, I kept going. I never allowed myself to back off.

7. Experiments never err, only your expectations do

Sometimes when an experiment didn’t provide the results I’d anticipated, I glanced at a quote hanging on the wall, from Leonardo da Vinci: Experiments never err, only your expectations do. It might seem that an experiment fails, but that’s only because your hypothesis was wrong or because you made an experimental error. Unless you do many different experiments, each time adjusting a little something, you can’t possibly know.

8. An individual experiment it is not in itself research

While an individual experiment is the smallest possible unit of the research process, it is not in itself research. In science, your overarching goal is to develop and test hypotheses; to do this, you need results not from one single experiment but rather from a mountain of them. You need to do each experiment many different times, each time changing only one variable. For each experiment, you also need control studies, in which no variables are changed, so you have a point of comparison.

9. Gratitude amplifies those things on which a successful life depends

That night, after hanging up the phone, I’d said to Béla, Would it be so hard to be grateful? It is an important question.
Near the very end of The Stress of Life, the book that had so moved me as a high school student, Selye thinks carefully about two mutually exclusive responses to stress in human relations: revenge and gratitude. Revenge, he notes, is an attempt to relieve stress. It is a very human response to a threat to one’s security. But revenge, he observes, “has no virtue whatever, and can only hurt both the giver and the receiver of its fruits.” Revenge brings only more revenge, in an endless cycle. If the goal is to relieve stress in a way that enhances one’s life, rather than detracts from it, there is a better way: One can be grateful.
Gratitude, Selye explains, is also cumulative. Like revenge, it brings ever more of itself. But the place where it leads is entirely different. Gratitude amplifies those things on which a successful life depends: peace of mind, security, fulfillment.
Would it be so hard to be grateful? The truth is, no. It is rarely so hard. One can find the good even in situations that end badly. One can always find a way to say thank you.

10. It matters, having your own personal cheerleader

Still, I’d do it all again if I could: the cheering, the pom-poms, every loud, embarrassing moment. I think it matters, having your own personal cheerleader. I think everyone deserves to know, Here is someone who believes in me. Here is someone who believes I can do great things, and who will never, ever quit rooting for me.

11. Having lots of options might be its own sort of burden

When I’d first met David, I’d understood that he would be given abundant opportunities. Now I wondered if having lots of options might be its own sort of burden. If many doors are open to you, but you can walkthrough only a handful in one lifetime, do you live forever haunted by what-ifs?

12. May immigrants keep coming

May immigrants keep coming. May they continue aspiring to more, going wherever they must to get the opportunities they deserve. May they keep making their way, and in the process remake our world.

13. You are the potential, you are the seed

Your future contribution might still be hypothetical. Please treat it like it’s real. It matters. It matters even if you don’t get to see the impact. That’s not the part any of us gets to control. Just keep going with your one more thing, and your one more thing, and your one more thing after that. Something I know for sure is this: Every seed gives rise to new life. This life in turn produces new seeds, which in turn give rise to still more. On and on it goes.
What I’m saying is, you must trust what’s inside you. Nurture what you find there, even — especially — when no one else does. What I’m saying is, keep going. Keep growing. Keep moving toward the light.
You are the potential. You are the seed.