Advice from an everyday star

Friday, 16 June, 2023
Tags: News

Lecturing at the MTA is an honor that many researchers don't get. And if before that lecture the introduction is given by the President of the MTA, the lecturer is certainly an international celebrity. Even if she is as direct in telling us about her work and giving advice to young researchers as Katalin Karikó.


The Main Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) was full, and there were still a few people standing at the back of the hall, at the doors in the corridor, although they could have probably fit in the first-floor room that had been opened to help. (It's true if somebody had questions it was only possible to ask in the Main Hall, and for at least one person this was absolutely essential.)


The reason so many people came to the event organized by the Academy of Young Researchers (AYR)was Katalin Karikó, who before 2020 was known in Hungary mostly only by those among whom she had grown up, studied, or worked at the Biological Centre of Szeged, till her group leader went abroad and her group was disbanded. The fact that some people now claim, that they knew well, she would be famous when she was still at home, is not worth saying. However, what she said in her unusual lecture at the Academy is worth considering for those who think, that she is too much of a hype, that she is being "overstared". 

Her talk was introduced by Tamás Freund, President of the HAS, and a presidential introduction is always a special recognition for an invited guest. The mood of the lecture, however, was far from the usual one of an invited world-renowned scientist. (One of the big exceptions was Richard Feynmann, who refused to take even the Nobel Prize award officially and seriously, which was frowned upon by some of those who did not take physics as seriously as Feynman did and knew it.)


True, it was not a real scientific lecture. Katalin Karikó had also prepared for it differently from her first lecture at the Academy in her home country. She was not the least bit bothered by the fact that her 'advisory' lecture for young scientists, advertised as a young person's lecture, was attended by at least as many people of her own age as many as younger people in total, including, however, some aged only 15. The average age of the members of the AYR who invited her was also most certainly over 30 probably high even among professional golfers, but science is such as it. Experiments and results take time, and not everyone is a mathematician or computer scientist, whose creativity can lead to almost instant success. This was also evident in the case of Katalin Kariko, and her decades of hard work and dedication have never been disputed. She said with justifiable pride that her protocols and the searchable and citable material of the not quite 10,000 (more than 9,800) articles she has read on her closely researched subject, processed in Excel spreadsheets, have been looked at with appreciation by her world-renowned colleagues for many years, and even photographed to show their students as a good example. 

And for those who would grumble that it is all very well, but to receive a hundred or so medals is just too much, read Albert-László Barabási's book The Formula

And why should she have refused, for example, an honorary doctorate from Harvard, when Tom Hanks did not hesitate to accept it, even though many Americans have already received this honor, while Katalin Karikó is the first Hungarian-born Hungarian citizen to be nominated and to receive it? Over the last three years, she has had to get used not only to giving speeches in famous places and in front of famous people but also to answer questions both out of genuine interest and for provocative purposes. 

She was prepared to speak to young people, to give them advice, but no one who was there and listened attentively went away empty-handed. 

True, very few people over the age of 65 can take advantage of the Excel spreadsheet as she can, and many probably missed the opportunity to consider tying their lives only to someone who helps and supports a researcher's almost never eight-hour working day. There may also have been those for whom the advice that "happiness brings success and not the other way round" may have come too late. But to take the advice that we should never wonder what the other person should have done, but what we should do in the future, no one is old enough. Nor we are too old to thank EVERYONE who has helped us.   In some cases, we can even thank someone who has been hindered, demoted or dismissed us. By pushing someone out of their comfort zone, they can, unwittingly or not, be encouraged to work harder and with more purpose!  


While there is no guarantee that after 40 years of hard work, everyone will be as successful as Katalin Karikó, there is a guarantee that such a person's life will be more balanced, happier, and therefore more successful.


Agnes Kittel

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