Olympic rowing gold medalist’s mom helped develop the COVID-19 vaccines

Susan Francia is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing. She is also the daughter of Dr. Katalin Kariko, a scientist and senior vice president with BioNTech whose tireless research into the use of mRNA laid the foundation for the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Despite never receiving a tenured position in academia and often working without pay for her research due to a lack of grant funding, Dr. Kariko is now getting more autograph and interview requests than her daughter. Francia, now a mom to a 4-month-old son, is also working in business development at a biotech company.

In her own words, Francia shares how a dedication to hard work as a way of life and seeing setbacks as an opportunity has defined both their successes.

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There is a Hungarian song that my mom used to sing to me when things got particularly difficult or discouraging during Olympic selections. The title in English roughly translates to “Diamond and Gold.” It’s all about how gold shines so much brighter when you’re the one who goes down into the earth and mines for it. If it’s handed to you, it’s just another thing — but if it’s something you fought for, it means that much more.

She taught me that hard work is a part of life, and if you embrace it, there will be a reward. I would be fulfilled. That perseverance is pretty much my family’s life in a nutshell — defying the odds, trying to keep forging ahead, even when all sorts of challenges are being thrown your way. I know what that’s like in sports, and my mom has lived that in science.

I was born in Hungary at a time when the country was still behind the Iron Curtain. When I was two, my mom lost her job at a university there. We moved to the U.S. so she could continue pursuing her work in biochemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia. At the time, people living behind the Eastern bloc countries were not allowed to bring more than $50 out of the country so as to discourage citizens from emigrating. My parents [Dr. Katalin Kariko and Bela Francia] had to sell their car on the black market for 900 British pounds (about $1,200). My mom unstitched the back of my teddy bear, carefully put the money inside and then sewed it back up and gave it to me to hold the day we flew to the US.

Now that I’m a parent, I think about what I would do if I had to pick my family up and move somewhere entirely new, especially with those kinds of political restrictions on me. It makes me really proud of how courageous they were for doing that. We came over with so little, and even though the streets are not paved with gold here, you can have incredible success if you work hard.

When she was commuting from our home in Philadelphia to the NIH in D.C., my mom would sometimes sleep in the lab under her desk. It speaks to her dedication that she really was after some answers about mRNA technology and making it work. People doubted her, she struggled to find grants, at one point she was demoted.

She would tell me about her setbacks, and I think she was frustrated by them, but it also didn’t detract from what she saw as the potential for mRNA. In hindsight, I think those setbacks actually helped her get to this point. It’s like when someone doubts you and tells you that you can’t do something, and you ultimately work even harder to prove them wrong.

That perseverance became exactly what I leaned on when I joined the U.S. rowing team. All of the natural advantages of being 6’2″ that I had on other teams were gone; it was a level playing field. There, everyone else was 6-feet tall, too. So, there were ups and downs and fighting through some of those downs were very reminiscent of my mom’s downs and demotions.

Rowing was the first thing I was naturally gifted at, but if you don’t keep up that hard work, you can grow complacent. Training was tough every day, but it was the last 2 months before the Olympic team was selected that were the most grueling. Finally, our coach sat me down, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.” I was so relieved; I think I fell back into the chair.

Going into that Olympics, Romania was on top, they had [won at the three] previous Games. We had won the World Championships leading up to it, so we knew it was going to be a good race.

It ended up being the culmination of all this hard work we put in for so long. The Olympics are every four years for everyone else, but for us it’s every day. So many days, so many hours went into that one moment, so it felt amazing to finish it, and even more so to have my parents there. They were crying, I was crying — we were all overjoyed and almost relieved.

Leading up to the 2012 Olympics, I had told my parents to go ahead and buy tickets for the Games. I knew I was going to do whatever it took to be in that boat. Around that time, my back had been hurting, and I went to a chiropractor to help fix it. In that moment of getting adjusted, I got off the table and said, “Am I supposed to feel like this?”

I got an MRI, and I could see it on the images from across the room — it was a herniated disc. It was a constant stabbing pain that radiated into my legs and made even sitting or driving almost unbearable. I was a year out from the Olympics, and I couldn’t even lift a plate of food off of the dinner table.

I nearly covered my entire back in heat and pain patches and toughed out the selections trial. I was going to race that damn race and I was going to do my best. My mom was telling me to listen to my body, make sure I was being smart. She reminded me I didn’t have to do this. But that’s when I saw her in me the most — there was no taking it easy; we need to go win.

The power I felt from all eight of us in that last race of the London Games was just unreal. By the thousand-meter mark, the halfway point, I knew we were going for gold. I thought to myself, no one is going to take this away from me now. No way.

With that Gold medal, I just felt this wave of relief that my body can rest now. We had done it again; we had proven we weren’t the underdogs anymore. I think my mom was really proud of all of those values I’d learned from her culminating in achieving this goal. I don’t know if she knew it then, but her turn was coming.

When she left Penn to join BioNTech in 2013, she had already invested years of research and it was time to actually put it into practice. I was excited for her to make that leap, because her goal has always been to have just one person achieve a better quality of life from the science she’d been working on her entire life.

When the pandemic hit, she along with her company immediately switched gears to work on a vaccine. She couldn’t wait to see the clinical data for it, because she knew it was going to be really good. She had told me the day before to watch the news and look up the press release. When I saw that it was 95% effective, I was stunned. That is not a number you see very often in clinical trials for any kind of vaccine. It was profound. My mom was on cloud nine. I can’t even describe how happy she was that this technology that she’d been working on for so long, the work that she really believed in even when others turned away, was having such success.

My mom is very matter of fact and didn’t celebrate with any big, crazy thing. No splurges or fancy dinners or anything flashy. Instead, she ate a whole box of Goobers, the chocolate-covered peanuts, all by herself at her desk.

Seeing my mom have success with this vaccine has meant the world to me. Not unlike my chase for the gold medal, it’s beyond rewarding to see all of those years of the grind and the struggle pay off.

We’ve lived the American Dream. We came here with very little, and we were given small opportunities. We had setbacks, but we capitalized on them to move forward and be the best we can be.

In rowing, most of the team is facing backward, so you can’t see when the finish line is coming. It was the same for my mom. She didn’t know when the end was going to be, so it required a trust in the process that every pull, every step was getting us closer to the things we wanted to accomplish. Looking back now, it really did work out that way. We did it, mom.

Additional reporting by Mike Farrell

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