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Katalin Karikó’s Elementary Biology Teacher: We Knew She Was Gifted

Tamás Vaski 2021.06.12.

Katalin Karikó’s achievement of creating the technology necessary for mRNA vaccines is clear to the world now, but her origin story is not. Albert Tóth, Katalin Karikó’s former biology teacher, gave an interview to Mandiner in which he shed some light on the now world-famous scientist’s roots. Tóth showed Mandiner around Zsigmond Móricz Academy, where Karikó’s pursuit of biological research began.

Biologist Albert Tóth is a bit frustrated by how Katalin Karikó is presented abroad, saying that “they speak of Kati as if she only operated in America, in fact as if she saw the light of day there first. But really it was not America, but Kisújszállás which was not only Kati’s origin point, but an important destination for her as well.”

An Especially Talented Student

Tóth, who everyone calls Berci bácsi (Uncle Berci), said that Karikó was far ahead of the other students in her class, and he knew that her skill needed to receive attention, in fact he considered it the obligation of her teachers, him among them, to help her with her gift.

The biology teacher also shared a different side of Karikó. While the world may know her as the one who discovered mRNA vaccine technology, she also had “exploratory merits” in the research of the World Heritage area of Hortobágy.

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Karikó had taken part in Tóth’s summer camps researching Hortobágy, one time even leaving a research project to come help her teacher lead a summer camp in the area. Tóth knew that she was an exceptional academic, and when the news of her world-changing accomplishment reached him, he said he was not even surprised.

I knew that she was working hard on an experiment, I even visited her in America at the beginning of the 90s. She showed me what she was doing, but I did not understand any of the bubbling test tubes, all I know was that she was researching something. And it bore fruit.”

Karikó Overcoming Challenges Since Day One

It is well known by this point that Katalin Karikó did not have an easy path reaching her goal. Even in her elementary years, she had had such a terrible conflict with her math teacher, that it almost led to her parents taking her out of the school.

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Tóth said that he was proud of her even back then, and did not want her to leave, saying that “we would have been much poorer now. While her abilities could have been developed elsewhere, she would not have had the same heartland. She needed to stay here.”

Regarding the countless challenges which Karikó faced down her path, Tóth said that she had never let the naysayers get to her, since they had no impact on her goals. “It is a unique quality of those with strong characters,” he said, “that anything can be said to them, they could even be spit on, but life gives them justice. The value acquired through authenticity is proof of this.”

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To this day, Karikó’s connection with Tóth has remained unbroken. In fact, he was the first person who she visited during her most recent trip to Hungary.

Featured photo illustration by Csilla Cseke/MTI