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What this Nobel Prize winner can teach us about proving others wrong

Last Updated:

May 1, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #47 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Snazzy doesn’t guarantee success.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Scientist Katalin Karikó was rejected by academic journals, denied grant funding, and even kicked out of her lab for what was considered insignificant work. 20 years later, she received the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking—and life-saving—research

It’s 2013. Katalin Karikó, a biochemist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, was just fired.

Why? Because Karikó studied mRNA-gene-based therapy—and this research was neither popular nor interesting.

28 years earlier, Karikó emigrated to the United States from Hungary, where she’d received her doctorate and pursued a career in researching mRNA. Karikó believed mRNA-gene-based therapy could play a pivotal role in treating otherwise fatal or life-threatening infections and conditions.

(mRNA is like an abbreviation of a longer phrase—think “OMW” instead of “On my way!”—that carries important messages from DNA to a cell’s nucleus.)

Karikó’s passion for mRNA and scientific pursuits was, according to a colleague, “unbelievable… She would always know the latest technology or the latest paper, even if it was in a totally different area, and she'd put two and two together and say, 'Well why don't we do this?'”

Karikó found funding for her research, but not for long. The scientific community around Karikó valued “the idea that will pay off in a year and not a decade” and mRNA therapy wasn’t flashy or fast. Only 5 years after her arrival to the United States, “mRNA began to fall out of favor”—and so did Karikó as a result.

Funding dried up. Research papers were rejected from academic journals. And Karikó was demoted—three times—until she was asked to leave her research laboratory.

But Karikó wasn’t deterred. A company called BioNTech saw her talent with mRNA and hired her as the vice president. For 8 years, Karikó and her team ran clinical trial after clinical trial to develop mRNA further as a gene therapy intervention for infectious disease.

In 2020, 35 years after Karikó arrived in the United States, her research found a new home: as the life-saving foundation for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Thanks to a discovery that Karikó made in 2005—though it had been dismissed by major science journal publications—Pfizer and Moderna developed the COVID-19 vaccine in a matter of months, rather than years.

Fast forward, and mRNA vaccines make up more than 655 million total doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, saving countless lives. And Karikó? In 2023, 38 years later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in mRNA which played a key role in the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

So, the next time that you find yourself wondering whether it's worth it to pursue your passion—especially if everyone around you seems to undervalue your mission—remember Karikó, who kept going even when it seemed like there was no good reason to continue.

Katalin Karikó (right), whose work helped the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020. Images via ERP and NobelPrize.org.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Just because something isn’t “cool” doesn’t make it “useless.”

What Karikó shows us is that even the best of us can fall victim to fads—and the world of scientific research is certainly not immune (pun absolutely intended).

Something that isn’t “cool” doesn’t equal something that is “useless.” It might just be that you see an opportunity that others don’t—and it will take people time to appreciate your brilliance.

Have an idea… but feeling pressure from society to change your mind and conform?

Try filling in the following blanks:

(1) ⁠“I believe _____ could benefit from _____  because _____.”

  • e.g., “I believe small businesses could benefit from low-cost web design and SEO services because people find everything online these days and only large organizations have had the resources to build a strong online presence.”

(2)⁠ ⁠“_____ believe _____ is a waste of time because _____.”

  • ⁠e.g., “All of my web developer and SEO friends believe that serving small businesses is a waste of time because their budgets are small.”

(3)⁠ ⁠“But, from what I’ve seen—and what _____ don’t get—is that _____.”

  • •e.g., “But, from what I’ve seen—and what my web developer and SEO friends don’t get—is that small businesses may have lower budgets, but they are also less sophisticated and are starting with nothing, so even the simplest projects can make a big impact and impress them. And today’s small businesses are tomorrow’s large businesses, so we’re building life-long relationships early.”

The first line is your personal thesis or belief about the world (which is important for you to have as we discussed with the story on the Trader Joe’s empire).

The second line is others’ belief—and that nagging voice in your head that you’re making a grave mistake.

The third line is a reminder of what you know that others may not know. Just because others disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re right. It may simply be that they’re basing their assumptions on a different set of facts.

You won’t be right all the time, but if you know something others don’t, you’ve got an “edge” that others don’t have. This is an asset! Not a liability. Have confidence—and patience! You might be on to something as Karikó was.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: People thought I was limiting myself too much by focusing on first-generation professionals in my work. Little did they know that first-gens are a growing share of the workforce—something much of the world still has yet to understand.

Have confidence (and build your confidence with these flashcards)!


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