Dr. Katalin Kariko, one of the three 2022 Tang Prize laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science, was invited to give a talk at a youth symposium held at Taipei First Girls’ High School (TFG) on August 2, in a room packed with more than two hundred students from TFG, Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School (JGHS), Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University (HSNU), and Taipei Municipal Chenggong High School. Brimming with infectious energy and enthusiasm, Dr. Kariko regaled the students with her life story, a journey of realizing her dreams that was full of ups and downs. She told these young minds that they should be passionate about what they do, have faith in themselves, learn how to handle stress, never stop learning and aspire to be a scientist.
Though this was the first time Dr. Kariko set foot in Taiwan, her connection with this island was formed years ago. One of her lab mates, Alice Kuo (Chiu-Mei Lin), is also a TFG graduate. Dr. Kariko shared a photo of Dr. Kuo wearing the TFG uniform when she was a student there as evidence of their close friendship, adding that Dr. Kuo suggested that she choose a green T-shirt for today’s symposium to match the signature color of the TFG uniform.
Chaired by Mrs. Yi-Yi Hsu, who teaches biology at TFG, the symposium began with Dr. Kariko’s talk, “Developing mRNA for Therapy: My Journey,” followed by a panel discussion between her and three students from TFG and JGHS and a Q&A that ensued.
Helping contain the spread of COVID catapulted Dr. Kariko to instant fame and won her numerous awards. She became one of the most sought-after scientists in the world. Behind the success story, however, was a long journey full of frustrations and setbacks. Dr. Kariko shared that she was demoted several times during the past decades. Though very few people were interested, she was passionate about her research on mRNA. When others didn’t understand the potential of mRNA, she was convinced the experiments she was conducting were important. These trials and tribulations only made her more resilient and helped her see more clearly the goals she was striving for.
Drawing on her personal experiences, she told the young audience aspiring to be scientists in the future that while “success is not always what you see” and the definition of success varied from people to people, they should always love what they are doing; have a positive attitude; learn to handle stress and convert a negative stress into a positive one; don’t compare themselves to others; don’t waste time on things they have no control over; step out of their comfort zones to learn something new; and remember to “tell your teachers, mentors and parents how much you value what they have done for you.” That was why during her recent trip back to her home country Hungary, she made sure to find time to visit her former mentors.
There was a great degree of curiosity among the students about different stages of her life that saw her move from Hungary to American and then to Germany, about how she managed to juggle work and family, and about what her next research topics would be. Facing a torrent of questions, Dr. Kariko said that even if she has been living in the limelight like a celebrity for the past two years, she still tried to gain new knowledge and keep herself updated on the latest research findings. Everyone should know what they like to do, she noted, and emphasized that what she liked the most was to carry out research in the lab, even though she understands that it is important to help with education outreach activities like this. She also mentioned that nowadays many people just wanted to be social media influencers and there was a lack of interest in science. But there are many global issues that need resolving. Therefore, she encouraged these high school students to pursue a career in science.
In his opening statement, Principle of TFG Chen Chih-yuan said it was a great honor to welcome Dr. Kariko to the school, and stressed that the students here were really fortunate to be in awe of such a remarkable scientist during their formative years. He also pointed out that the Tang Prize was known to many as Asia’s Nobel Prize and all its recipients have made significant contributions to society. What these laureates have achieved was a demonstration of both exceptional research done in the field of biopharmaceutical science and an excellent example of how scientists, through collaborative efforts, can help the world overcome major hurdles. He therefore hoped that after understanding how Dr. Kariko successfully develop mRNA vaccines through her lecture, the students could stand on the shoulders of giants and dream bigger dreams.
In her opening remarks, Director of General Affairs of the Tang Prize Foundation Mrs. Yin-Yin Hu mentioned that education was the lifelong passion of the Ruentex Group Chairman and Tang Prize founder Dr. Samuel Yin. Therefore, besides events such as the award ceremony and laureates’ lectures, the Foundation also organized symposiums like this to get young students engaged and help them learn about the research of the Tang Prize laureates. In 2016, Tang Prize laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science, recipient of 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and renowned RNA structural biologist Dr. Jennifer Dounda also gave a talk at TFG, which was met with marvelous reception. In 2018, Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development Dr. James Hansen went to HSNU to talk to students about climate change.
The 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science is awarded to Dr. Katalin Kariko, Dr. Drew Weissman, and Dr. Pieter Cullis “for the discovery of key vaccinology concepts and approaches, leading to successful development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.” They not only helped saved millions of lives but also ushered in a new era of mRNA-LNP technologies that have the potential of enabling more personalized, effective therapies.
About the Tang Prize
The advent of industrialization and globalization ushered in a new era of comfort and convenience through scientific and technological advancements. Yet, a multitude of crises have emerged along the way, such as climate change, wealth gap, and moral degradation. To tackle these problems, Dr. Samuel Yin founded the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Every two years, four independent and professional selection committees made up of distinguished international experts and scholars, including several Nobel laureates, choose Tang Prize winners from a pool of nominees who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.75 million) is allocated to each category, with NT$10 million of it (approx. US$ 0.35 million) designated as a research grant to fund laureates’ research and education projects. The hope is to encourage more people with professional knowledge and skills to address mankind’s most urgent needs in this century, and to become leading forces behind the development of human society through their outstanding research and civic engagement.