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A Day With Nobel Laureates, from Celebration to Inspiration

The morning of October 2nd was an ordinary one at the University of Pennsylvania in many ways. Students strolled the campus leisurely in shorts or studied on benches, sipping iced coffee in the warm, early fall sunshine. On the medical campus, employees scrubbed in for surgeries, brought breakfast to hungry inpatients, registered outpatients for appointments, and otherwise went about their daily tasks as scheduled. 

But in fact, the sun had risen on a historic day for Penn Medicine, which began in the pre-dawn hours with calls from Sweden to the mRNA technology pioneers Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, to tell them they had been named recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The day unfolded with the world’s eyes on Penn, as Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research in Infectious Diseases, and Karikó, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, both in the Perelman School of Medicine, spoke to media from across the globe. They fielded congratulations from family, friends and colleagues near and far, and greeted an ecstatic crowd of admiring Penn Medicine faculty and staff who gathered to toast their momentous accomplishment. Along the way, the Penn Medicine community found inspiration in the knowledge that science happening here and now could lead to the next world-changing treatments, vaccines, and cures for more diseases.

What a Wakeup Call!

5:45 a.m., Nobel press conference from Sweden, broadcast online

Karikó was woken up well before dawn by the call from Stockholm, although the Nobel Assembly secretary-general seemed to have the wrong number for her colleague. Both she and Weissman initially thought it was a prank and opted to wait for the official announcement, which was broadcast, before light had even broken through the sky. “I sat in bed watching the Nobel press conference with my wife, and my cat begging for food,” chuckled Weissman. “When they said our names on the live stream, it was real.”

The morning was a busy blur as they fielded requests for media interviews and freshened up for their own press conference. Before leaving for University City, Weissman called his parents to break the big news to them. Their response was ecstatic: “I don’t know what to say, I’m ready to fall on the floor!” exclaimed his mother. A Penn Medicine video of the sweet phone call quickly went viral.

 

Sharing the News With the World 

11:25 a.m., the University Meeting and Guest House

With dozens of journalists gathered in person and about 100 watching a livestream from across the world, the two new Nobel laureates gathered with Penn and Penn Medicine leaders to reflect on the career-defining honor and field questions about what it was like to get the news and where they see the mRNA revolution going for the prevention and treatment of diseases of all kinds.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill called Karikó and Weissman “curious, inventive, tenacious, and devoted to the collective good”—similar to another scientist: Penn founder Benjamin Franklin.

“Here at Penn Medicine, we’re making breathtaking discoveries and we’re putting them to work,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. With a voice full of pride, he called the pair’s Nobel win “a testament to the transformative power of science.”

The pair answered questions on the science, their collaborative style and what it meant to win. When asked what she would tell young people—particularly young women—interested in science, Karikó beamed. “You have to enjoy what you do,” she said. “If you like to solve problems, science is for you.”

Bringing the Celebration to Campus 

1:00 p.m., the Smilow Center

The lobby of the Smilow Center for Translational Research is normally a fluid space: people coming and going from appointments and meetings, patients and staff grabbing a bite to eat from the nearby café as they pass by the backdrop of a colorful mural displaying the history of vaccine development in Philadelphia. At this point in the day, movement began to slow until the space swelled with hundreds of students, staff, and faculty in a scene that would have seemed impossible in 2020 amidst stay-at-home orders. 

They all gathered—craning their necks and anxiously holding up smart phones—to catch a glimpse of the newest Nobel laureates.

“It’s very exciting—it’s being celebrated worldwide, and I’m here!” marveled Nimay Kumar, an app developer who works as part of the team of Marylin Ritchie, PhD, a professor of Genetics and the director of the Penn Center for Precision Medicine and the Institute for Biomedical Informatics, of the decision to stop by the flash mob with his coworkers. The crowd roared with cheers and loud applause when the pair arrived.

Noting the perfect timing—the Nobel win came just as new COVID boosters are being rolled out—Magill reiterated how proud she was of the duo. The recognition, she said, “reaffirms what we have known here at Penn for a long time … They are the very best of science, they are the very best of Penn.”

Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, Penn Medicine’s chief scientific officer, agreed. “Your work, your success, and the saving of so many millions of lives are a booster for all of us who struggle in labs, often in the face of challenges,” he said. “It’s like a shot in the arm for all of us.”

Seeing so many well-wishers gathered in one place, Karikó confessed to being moved. After a whirlwind morning preparing for and facing the media, “a tear came to my eye here,” she remarked. Karikó advised her colleagues to persevere and follow their dreams, but also to “enjoy what you’re doing and have fun!”

“I look out at this group and I see researchers, collaborators, and people from my lab … you guys are deserving of this award as much as me,” observed Weissman. “You are the heart of Penn Medicine, you’ll be developing new things from mRNA. We need to celebrate all of you!”

Before the event broke and audience members clamored to take selfies with the Nobel winners, University of Pennsylvania Health System CEO Kevin B. Mahoney mentioned the new employee orientation he was going to later that afternoon. “I start every one by saying, ‘If you work at Penn Medicine, you’re going to be bumping into Nobel Prize winners.’ And guess what?” he laughed, before turning wistful about the prizewinning pair’s work: “And thank you for making it possible to hug my grandbaby a couple of years ago.”

Clinical research nurse Bonnie Falconer, BSN, RN, noted that although COVID-19 vaccines are what likely prompted the Nobel committee’s decision, they represent just the tip of the iceberg. “mRNA is changing science so rapidly,” with the potential to transform many diseases and conditions, from autoimmune disorders to cancer. “What every oncologist wants is to be out of a job” due to new therapies that can prevent and cure disease.

As the event ended, Corporal Alethia Murphy from Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Security reflected on her long but momentous day. “We rallied to get all the troops in place by 1 p.m., so we could make this a safe event,” she explained. Standing just feet away from the world’s newest Nobel Prize winners, Murphy echoed Falconer’s sentiments: “It’s a big achievement; Penn is so innovative. That means we’re on our way to getting cures for a lot of other things. The next is cancer!”

Keeping the Future in Focus 

3:00 p.m., Weissman’s Lab at One uCity Square

Almost a full 12 hours after being texted by Karikó that Secretary-General of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann needed his correct phone number, Weissman was still going strong, surrounded by his closest colleagues in the lobby of his new lab space, along with James Hoxie, co-Director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation. Hoxie recalled a conversation they had years ago about whether Weissman would ever retire. Weissman had said that what he really wanted was to help people. “We do get so tied up by the hours we put in,” Hoxie acknowledged of the life of researchers, “but Drew always had his eyes on the world and on people to help.”

Amid the mingling, celebratory photos, and clinking glasses (or plastic cups), Senior Research Investigator Xiomara Mercado admitted to being a little worried that worldwide fame and requests to address other issues would wrest her boss away from the lab. Still, she was thrilled. “We were expecting this the last two years, but I always said never in my wildest dreams would I think I’d be working for a Nobel Prize winner. When I watched the announcement and heard their names, I started to cry.”

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