Who is Kati Kariko and What Can She Teach Us About Chasing Glory and Fame

Today's story is actually quite old, and it would normally have been a line in Friday's Reflections. But it was too good, too phenomenal to be a single line post.  A few months ago, New York Times reported the story of a 66-year old researcher and immigrant who never got any grant, never made more than $60K, never got her own lab, but who for FOUR decades kept working on the mRNA (a path many considered foolish) but which ultimately led to the basis for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

I recently realized that I don't cry easily, but this story...this story brought tears to my eyes when I first heard about it a few months ago.

Alexa, show me a hero.

It got me emotional for so many reasons, more than I could adequately articulate in one post. I have said over and over on this blog that know what it is to fail and to fail and to be rejected and to be rejected. So that hers resulted in quite literally saving humanity is probably the best story of this decade. 

Before we go on, let this serve as proof as we have been shouting from the rooftops that the vaccine was not made "very quickly".

Now moving on.  

A few months ago, Forbes released another of its list: 30 under 30. When are they not releasing list upon list that quite frankly serve no other goal than to be ego boosters? Anyway, I was saying to my friend that sometimes only the limelight is celebrated. Most times, only the limelight is celebrated. This brought to mind one of my most favorite quotes. 

"In this world of relentless self-promotion, we have all been raised to think that the limelight is the only light worth seeking...some of the greatest things have been done by people you've never heard of: quietly dedicating their lives to improve your own."  - Matt Mahoney

It's funny because this IS the reality of things. Everyone hypes themselves. People celebrate mediocrity. People embellish their skills. We call it branding. We call it celebrating yourself. We call it knowing your worth.  It is the world we live in. People value the huge following, fame, and popularity. I have actually always struggled with this. If, like me and a lot of people I know, you don’t like calling attention to yourself, it means in a world that only likes noise, they will drown you out.

Culture says boast, be arrogant, toot your own horns, make noise about how you are the baddest bitch. 

Yet, my Christian faith says, be humble, don't care what others say, don't try to impress others, think more about others than yourself, lift others up, care about how what you do affects others, don't take yourself too seriously.

"Don't be selfish; don't try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don't look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too." - Philippians 2: 3- 4.

Honestly, if you take Paul's advice in these verses to heart in Corporate America, you will probably not succeed.  Literally, at one point, Paul even said all his achievements were rubbish compared to the joy of knowing God. That's the focus, the goal, to bring glory to God.

So which to do? I don't know. Sorry to you if you thought I had an answer.

Here is my take though. Never ever do stuff just because of the glory it will bring to you. Because you will chase a high that you can ultimately never catch. You will have the adulation of millions and the worship of millions, and it will never be enough. You will find yourself on a Saturday night feeling completely empty and lonely despite being so great. Or the inverse: no one knows who you are no matter how hard you try to get them to care. You chase and you chase. You seek attention. You tweet crazy things and post nonsensical things that don't even align with who you are, and the more inauthentic you come across as, the more people turn away. So again, here you are on a Saturday night wondering why no one, not even strangers on the internet, cares about you.

I say focus on your work. Do the work and forget about accolades, and hype, and all of the noise. Do what you can. Be diligent. Be hardworking. But don't give up your soul. Paul later writes to Timothy that soon, people are going to be "...self-absorbed, money-hungry, and self-promoting" (2 Timothy 2:3).  And WOW, I feel like this describes this generation perfectly. When I say generation, I don't mean a particular age group; I mean literally this cohort of humanity on earth, especially those in so-called Western, developed, high-income (or whatever egocentric classification we have assigned ourselves) countries. There is a pervasive greed  that is vicious, selfish, and all around ruthless. But it's allowed, because if you couch something as "self-care" or "looking out for me" then no one sees any fault in it. 

Back to our hero, Kati Kariko, who that New York Times article was about. I have been in so much awe of her brilliance and hard-work. In thinking of her place in academia, in so many, many ways, her story is also a story of how incredibly broken academia is. One might even say how broken our society is.  

Academia (our society in general too?) no longer rewards ingenuity but  in many ways, caters to gatekeepers and over-exaggerated egos. We love fluff, and grandiose facades that are never ever what they claim they are. 

I am hoping this is a helpful reminder (lesson?) to us all. I think with the advent of social media (God bless us, but for how long are we going to keep blaming it for everything?) it has never been easier to achieve virality and fame and popularity of some sort. Everyone wants to be a YouTuber or amass followers on—oh boy—the Tik Tok (as the elders say). But maybe it's okay to release that thirst for the limelight. I think what's more important is impact; or at least that's what I am focusing on. We have to learn how to disconnect impact and success from popularity. 

Although if we are being honest, I'm also a little too lazy for the whole self-promotion and branding thing. So there is that.

This woman was literally demoted but nevertheless, she persisted. She was diligent even when there was no promise of ever "hitting the bag" and frankly, I don't know how she managed to do that.  

Interestingly, when you stop chasing the numbers, the high, the popularity, you not only experience peace but I think you also get to enjoy things more. It means you understand that sometimes, something is just a passion or hobby and you don't need to monetize it. It means you don't have to debase yourself for whatever reason. You just are. Don't you deserve that? For instance, (allow me to be vulnerable here), this blog (and its other equivalents) is just an aspect of my life. And true, there was a time I cared a lot about people reading and you know every creative's dream yidi yada. I don't really care about that anymore. Maybe people will read. Maybe they won't. I like it, I can do it, and so I will keep doing it. I just do me; within the confines of my values and principles, of course. So give yourself some peace today.

With all that said, give this woman her Nobel prize immediately! What a badass!



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