Dotted amongst a night of stars like Lilly Collins, Mila Kunis, Maria Sharapova, and Kristen Bell sat Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, and Katalin Karikó, PhD. The two mRNA pioneer scientists may have begun the night feeling not much in common with their entertainment A-list tablemates but ended the night having partnered on one more project: assembling IKEA furniture. 

Egged on by the evening’s host James Corden and scrapping lab coats for formal wear, the pair held tools and instructions as they put together the Trotten drawer unit. Corden told Karikó and Weissman that, sure, building the novel mRNA vaccine platform that protected the world from COVID-19 was hard, but a real challenge would be to build some Ikea furniture. “I wouldn’t rely on Vin Diesel to help you too much,” said Corden, referencing the famous actor seated to Karikó‘s left. Weissman smiled and laughed as Karikó, with a look of determination, immediately took stock of the pieces and parts. They got to work just as they had done so many times in the lab.

Award ceremonies for Karikó and Weissman, like this Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony in Los Angeles this spring, have been non-stop now that the world is shifting from managing COVID-19 as a pandemic emergency to an endemic disease. During the height of the pandemic as mRNA vaccines were being put into arms, the accolades flooded in for these two scientists whose key discoveries more than 15 years earlier made those vaccines possible. But the kudos arrived in the form of phone calls, certificates and medals shipped in the mail, and magazine spreads

On the walls of Weissman’s office, you’ll find letters from adoring fans, the kind of letters the stars of the latest Marvel movie might receive. Some of the letters are even thank-you notes from kids who heard about how Weissman and Karikó’s work led to the vaccine and who now want to become scientists just like them. 

Now, the world wants to celebrate not only the accomplishments of the pair but a return to some sense of normalcy. And they probably want to meet two of the greatest researchers of our time. Who wouldn’t?

A World of Thanks: From Vietnam to the Vatican

Katalin Kariko stands next to a mural of her portrait on the side of a building

“It’s nice that these award ceremonies bring people together,” said Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are academics, dignitaries, celebrities, and members of the public who are all uniting to honor science. Through these ceremonies, we often also are invited to visit schools, elementary through high school, to talk about our work and what they can do if they go into science. That’s personally very fulfilling.”

“These awards are opportunities to talk about science and expose people to science, and I feel like it’s my responsibility now to engage with people,” said Karikó an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery. “I also want young people to see how exciting research can be. I often talk about the challenges and difficulties, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Accepting awards has taken Weissman and Karikó across the United States and to Spain, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam just to name a few. Weissman and his family stayed with King Felipe of Spain and his family in a luxury hotel in northern Spain that the King rented out. He and his family were picked up from the airport in a royal car with police escort and driven to the hotel while out their windows crowds stood on the side of the road and bagpipes played. 

Katalin Karikó had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, she and her whole family received blessings from him, and afterward, gave a lecture to Vatican scientists. And when Karikó visited her native Hungary, she was able to get a photo in front of—well—herself in the form of a 220-square-foot mural on the side of a building in Budapest. On it are Hungarian words which translate to, “The Future is Written By Hungarians.” There’s now also a mural of her on the wall of a building at the Technical University of Valencia in Spain.

Stranger than Fiction

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman hold gold Lasker Award trophies.

While the most surreal award ceremony for them both was the Breakthrough Prize which famously treats scientists like pop stars and where actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis ran up to Karikó to take a selfie with her, Weissman says one of the most special recognitions for him was the Lasker Prize, which is often referred to as America’s Nobel.

“It was one of the first major awards we won, and it was given in person in 2021 in New York City,” said Weissman. “Things were just beginning to be in person again, and because we had not been recognized much yet, it I remember being genuinely surprised by that one along with the Rosentiel Award from my alma mater Brandeis University.”

Returning to Hungary with fanfare and giant images of her face was not the only “am I dreaming” moment for Karikó. Another “wow” moment was meeting actor Edward Norton who starred in the 1999 movie Fight Club and who attended the Breakthrough Prize ceremony.

“In Fight Club, Norton’s character says that, when you lose everything and have nothing left to lose, you become brave,” said Karikó. “I lost jobs and research funding and could resonate with the spirit of his character’s lines. So, meeting him at this point in my life, after I’ve come through the other side of my professional losses and am now recognized in such a big way, was surreal.”

Their Next Act

This week, both Karikó and Weissman are in Taiwan to receive the 2022 Tang Prize they officially won last year. As part of the event, they both will give individual lectures on how mRNA can potentially treat or prevent a variety of diseases. 

“I try to put a lot of time into preparing for lectures and meeting with people,” said Karikó. “If I am meeting with researchers, I read their latest papers or even papers that they have.” When she talked to this writer via video chat, she was in Germany for meetings and already preparing for a presentation she had to give remotely at 3 a.m. her time. 

But Karikó and Weissman have made sure their travels and ceremonies have not slowed down their research endeavors. Weissman will begin working in a brand-new Penn lab space set to open this fall in University City while Karikó continues to pursue new projects related to mRNA therapies. 

At the end of the night of the Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony, the joke was on Corden. Weissman and Karikó wasted no time in confidently piecing together the IKEA drawer. “Kati is an unrelenting problem solver,” Weissman said. “And I’m pretty handy. I once added a porch onto my house.”

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