Review - Breaking Through by Katalin Karikó

From Hungarian Communism to U.S. Labs: The Story of an Extraordinary Scientist

Published at 14 mag 2024

Review - Breaking Through by Katalin Karikó

The first time I heard Katalin Karikó speak was on TV. She calmly answered questions about her life, questions she had answered countless times before. She spoke about the teddy bear filled with dollars, her butcher father, and the struggles of living in a foreign country. And the struggle of someone who firmly believes in their ideas but seems to be the only one.

Whether it was the studio lights or my own perception, I became convinced of one thing: Katalin had a light of vindication in her eyes. The same light as someone who succeeded against all odds and everyone.

I bought Katalin’s autobiography and devoured her words. At times, I even got emotional. But this doesn’t count, according to my wife, I get emotional very easily. I got angry when things didn’t go her way. And I wished I could tell her to celebrate her successes because she had earned them all.

I loved the story of Katalin Karikó, future Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, mother of mRNA vaccines, scientist—actually kutató, “researcher”—immigrant, strong, and stubborn woman.

The story begins in Kisújszállás, a rural village in 1950s Hungary, where she’s the daughter of a butcher. It was an archaic world with simple houses, cold winters, and barnyard animals. A world where water was fetched from the well, and around the well, the village gathered to exchange gossip, information, warnings, and advice. There were griots, the horseback heralds who brought news from city to city. It was a world where science was present but mixed with traditions, where biochemistry took the form of the woman who made soap.

Katalin attended primary school as a bright and perceptive child. But which child isn’t? Soon, she discovered two things:

  1. The brain is malleable: what we practice, we strengthen
  2. Sometimes bullshit men are lauded as heroes

Here, we learn something equally important about Katalin; we get to know an aspect that I find absolutely human, natural, and common to all of us: Katalin had many grievances to settle. She did so with elegance and style. She wasn’t hateful or vindictive. She wasn’t because, from every meanness and harassment received, she derived a lesson.

It didn’t matter whether it was about the bad man turned hero by propaganda, the resentful professor trying to hinder her, or the office manager who considered her his possession. They were indeed obstacles, but they were, above all, lessons to be learned.

Ultimately, the protagonist’s life is a continuous search for answers. Question after question, experiment after experiment. Following Lieutenant Columbo’s teaching: there’s always another question to ask, another answer to find.

From a certain point of view, Katalin’s autobiography can be read as a coming-of-age novel. Humble beginnings, difficulties forcing her to emigrate, antagonists putting spokes in her wheels, defeat, redemption, and finally, the most complete triumph.

And like every good coming-of-age novel, the final teaching: trust what’s inside you. Nurture what you find there. Make it grow. Keep moving forward. Keep going. Keep growing. Keep moving toward the light. Towards the future.

You are the potential. You are the seed.