Katalin Karikó traveled to Hungary to visit the University of Szeged, her alma mater, only one week after she won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. She was greeted by hundreds of locals, attended a celebratory meeting, held a press conference, met with researchers, and held seminars for university students at SZTE on October 12, 2023.
A celebrating crowd filled the Dugonics Square and greeted the alumna of the University of Szeged — who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine just a week earlier, the announcement of which was followed live by the university — with applause and cheers. The current SZTE research professor was greeted by Prof. Dr. Gábor Szabó, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Szeged Foundation, Prof. Dr. László Rovó, Rector of the University of Szeged, Dr. Judit Fendler, Chancellor of the University of Szeged, Dr. László Botka, Mayor of the City of Szeged, and Dr. László Salgó, head of the Csongrád-Csanád County Government Office in front of the central building of the university.
Professor Karikó greeted the people gathered at Dugonics Square with a heartwarming speech describing her relationship with Szeged. She recalled that she studied, met her husband, graduated, and got a doctorate in Szeged. "I was married here and even my daughter was born here. All good things happened to me in Szeged" she added.
After that, the university organized a private celebratory meeting in honor of Dr. Katalin Karikó, which was attended by the trustees of the University of Szeged Foundation, the university's vice-rectors, general directors, directors, deans and deputy deans of the faculties.
At the ceremonial meeting, Professor Karikó received the keys to the office where SZTE's first Nobel laureate and former rector, Albert Szent-Györgyi, worked. The famous room at Dóm Square 8 still has the furniture used by Albert Szent-Györgyi, but is already equipped with high-tech research equipment and belongs now to Hungary's first Nobel Prize-winning woman scientist.
"The development of mRNA-based vaccines, which played a key role in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, directed the world's attention to the significance of Katalin Karikó's discoveries about messenger RNA. We are proud that this work was recognized with a Nobel Prize last week! It is clear that the Nobel Prize is the golden hallmark of this decades-long work, which gives hope for curing other diseases in the future" emphasized Prof. Dr. László Rovó, rector of SZTE.
The mayor of Szeged, László Botka, handed the SZTE alumna a congratulatory book signed by thousands of Szeged residents in recent days and announced that the portraits of Albert Szent-Györgyi and Katalin Karikó will be painted on the highest building of Szeged, the 17-story residential building in Újszeged.
The program continued from 3:00 p.m. with a press conference. Later, Katalin Karikó discussed her professional research with the leaders of the university, and also met and talked with young students and researchers at the University of Szeged, and answered their questions. After that, she took over her new office and held a speech at Dóm Square.
Some of the events could be followed on a temporary screen located on Dugonics Square and on the Facebook and YouTube pages of the University of Szeged.
After her ceremonial welcome, Dr. Katalin Karikó answered the questions of the press. Journalists and reporters from about 30 media organizations participated in the event.
To the question Which are the places from your university years in Szeged that you still like to think back to today? she answered:
"I received my diploma in the rector's building, but I have many memories of the other buildings where I studied biology, chemistry, and physics. My favorite places were the Herman Ottó College, where I lived for 5 years, and the Szeged Biological Research Center, where I did my doctorate and worked for two years. Let me also mention the dining room of the former Textile Works, where I met my husband, the marriage hall of the City Hall, where we got married, and the maternity clinic in Szeged, where our daughter was born."
"Young people often compare themselves to others and get frustrated because it seems to them that others are making more progress. People like to complain and blame others for their failures, but this only wastes their attention. It is worth focusing on what we ourselves can change. In every situation, we have to ask what we can do. I was fired from my job several times — I couldn't change that. But I could change what to do after that. What can be done? — I recommend this question not only to researchers but to everyone" she replied to the question about her former statement "We have to concentrate on what we can change".
Further questions included a wide range of topics, from the Karikó Problem — a new phrase that popped up after she won the Nobel Prize — to the question of misinformation about vaccines, as well as her future goals. Dr. Karikó was also asked about what working with fellow researcher Drew Weissman, who received the Nobel Prize jointly with Karikó, was like.
Prof. Dr. Katalin Karikó has received numerous professional and social recognitions and awards in the past two years. Some of these included monetary rewards, some of which the alumna of the University of Szeged offered to her alma mater in order to support the institution's most outstanding researchers. After participating in the meeting organized in her honor and answering questions from the press, Katalin Karikó discussed research topics with several excellent researchers of the university.
The professor then held a seminar for Hungarian and foreign students in the recently reopened JATE Club, which is 50 years old this year. Katalin Karikó answered the questions submitted by students regarding education, research, and healing in a Hungarian and an English-language discussion led by SZTE students. It is particularly interesting that Albert Szent-Györgyi, the first Nobel laureate of the University of Szeged, met the students here exactly 50 years ago, on October 12, 1973, and had a similar exchange of ideas with them.
The students of SZTE discussed topics with the professor, such as methods of studying and preparing for exams, the most important stages of becoming a researcher, data collection and processing techniques, tricks and advice for building relationships, as well as obtaining grants, but career and family was discussed too. Of the hundreds of student questions received in advance, there was time to answer roughly ten questions per seminar.
The entire conversation can be viewed on the University of Szeged's Facebook Page.
Katalin Karikó, SZTE's Nobel Prize-winning research professor, got into a red Volkswagen Beetle convertible on the evening of October 12, when she finished her seminar for foreign students at the JATE Club. Rector Prof. Dr. László Rovó drove the car as they marched through Eötvös and Apáthy streets to Dóm Square, accompanied by a huge crowd.
Hundreds of people were already waiting for the celebrant on the square, and when the car rolled in, children's and adult choirs performed folk songs from the balcony of the Chemistry Institute. Katalin Karikó, together with the leaders of the University of Szeged, laid a wreath on the statue of Albert Szent-Györgyi and then occupied the study room that was previously used by Szent-Györgyi.
Amid huge applause and cheers, she came out onto the institute's terrace, where she sang the National Anthem with the gathered Szeged citizens and the choirs. At the end of her day at SZTE, the first Hungarian female Nobel laureate gave a speech from the balcony. Here she repeated what she said earlier at the celebratory meeting, that after learning that she would receive the Nobel Prize she wanted to come to Szeged to celebrate. "I had to come here to celebrate with you!" Katalin Karikó said, and the audience greeted her words with huge applause.
Recalling the major milestones of her life in Szeged, starting from 1972, when she came for a university preparatory course, she named all the buildings and institutions that were important for her back then and finished by saying that she and her family were very happy in Szeged.
She ended her speech by saying that she would return to Szeged together with her husband and then added "I am also happy that Albert Szent-Györgyi was here 50 years ago, we are very proud that he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. It is unbelievable, but I won it too!"
Professor Karikó already started working at her new office the following day, which she also posted about on the X platform.
Photos by: István Sahin-tóth