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Medical Pioneer: Katalin Karikó

Updated: May 17, 2021

By now, almost one-third of adults in the United States have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Someone who played a very important role in making this possible is Dr. Katalin Karikó.

Dr. Karikó is the scientist who discovered the process used to create mRNA vaccines.

In the 1990s Dr. Karikó studied the work of scientists who were able to use mRNA vaccines in mice. She had the idea that mRNA vaccines could also work in people. But, since this had never been done before, nobody really believed that she would be able to do it.

Creating the human vaccines was a very tricky process because when she would try to inject the mRNA into people, their immune systems would mistake it for an intruder and destroy the mRNA before it could get to the cells where it could do it's work.

Dr. Karikó tried everything she could think of to make the new process work, but no matter what she tried, her experiments continued to fail. After six years of trying and failing to figure out how to make mRNA work in humans, Dr. Karikó's bosses were not very happy with her, and they were ready to fire her from her job as a scientist.

Even though she sometimes felt that she was not good enough or smart enough to figure it out either, Dr. Karikó would not give up. After four more years of doing different experiments, Dr. Karikó and her team had the bright idea to make an important change in the mRNA that they were creating in the lab.

This change made it possible for the mRNA to be given to a person without the person's immune system destroying it.

This discovery was the first step in making it possible for mRNA to be used for treatments and vaccines, like the Pfizer vaccine that people all over the country are getting to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

Learn more about Dr. Karikó below:


  1. What is a great idea that you have had that seemed hard in the beginning but turned out great in the end?

  2. What are some things that you can do to cheer yourself up and keep going when things get hard?

  3. Have you ever worked really hard on something and it didn't turn out the way you planned?

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