A story of perseverance and the power of convictions from the groundbreaking immigrant scientist whose decades-long research led to the COVID-19 vaccines
Katalin Karikó had an unlikely journey. The daughter of a butcher in postwar communist Hungary, Karikó grew up in a one-room home that lacked running water, and her family grew their own vegetables. She saw the wonders of nature all around her and was determined to become a scientist. That determination eventually brought her to the United States, where she arrived as a postdoctoral fellow in 1985 with $1,200 sewn into her toddler’s teddy bear and a dream to remake medicine.
Karikó worked in obscurity, battled cockroaches in a windowless lab, and faced outright derision and even deportation threats from her bosses and colleagues. She balked as prestigious research institutions increasingly conflated science and money. Despite setbacks, she never wavered in her belief that an ephemeral and underappreciated molecule called messenger RNA could change the world. Karikó believed that someday mRNA would transform ordinary cells into tiny factories capable of producing their own medicines on demand. She sacrificed nearly everything for this dream, but the obstacles she faced only motivated her, and eventually she succeeded.
Karikó’s three-decades-long investigation into mRNA would lead to a staggering achievement: vaccines that protected millions of people from the most dire consequences of COVID-19. These vaccines are just the beginning of mRNA’s potential. Today, the medical community eagerly awaits more mRNA vaccines—for the flu, HIV, and other emerging infectious diseases.
Breaking Through explores the questions: How do you keep believing in yourself, and your work, even as others refuse to see your potential? How much is too much to sacrifice for a dream? Karikó’s inspirational memoir isn’t just the story of an extraordinary woman; it’s an indictment of closed-minded thinking and a testament to one woman’s commitment to laboring intensely in obscurity—knowing she might never be recognized in a culture that is more driven by prestige, power, and privilege—because she believed her work would save lives.