Susan Francia and Katalin Kariko at the Poznan 2009 World Rowing Championships

Susan Francia is a two-time Olympic Champion rower. Her mother just won the Nobel prize in medicine. The family now has two famous members. Parallels have been drawn between scientific research and sporting success.

Dr Katalin Karikó was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with her research partner Drew Weissman. The pair worked on mRNA which was the foundation for the Covid-19 vaccines that were then developed by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna.

The Covid-19 vaccines have become some of the best-selling medicines ever and in a short space of time it has been given to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

On announcing the win by Karikó and Weissman, the Nobel Prize committee stated, “The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

When the Covid-19 Pandemic took over the world, World Rowing spoke to Francia about her mother and Karikó’s work and her decades-long mission to unlock the medical potential of mRNA.

It was not an easy research road for Karikó. Her research into mRNA began in 1978 while at the University of Szeged in Hungary. She moved to the United States in 1985 to take up a job first at Temple University in Philadelphia before moving to the University of Pennsylvania.

Her work was not always recognised and funding to continue her research was hard to come by. Karikó says she was demoted a number of times. This did not discourage Karikó who believed in the usefulness of mRNA, the genetic messenger that sends DNA instructions to make specific proteins. She remained persistent and positive.

Speaking to CNBC Karikó says Francia also developed positivity and perseverance. Being tall meant that she was pushed towards basketball in her younger years. She wasn’t that good. But joining the rowing crew in her second year at university was the right choice as positivity and perseverance proved to be necessary assets.

Karikó believes that leading by example is the key to raising resilient kids. With a mother that persisted through decades-long research with plenty of setbacks to become a Nobel Prize laureate must be considered textbook parenting for Francia’s development into becoming one of the best rowers to come from the United States.

After retiring from competitive rowing Francia coached rowing. She has now followed indirectly in her mother’s direction. Francia works for a biotechnology company that sells reagents and raw material for the Covid-19 vaccine.

The Nobel prize winners were announced on 2 October and Karikó along with her co-winner Drew Weissman will receive their award in Stockholm on 10 December 2023.

“Sport is a lot like science in that you have a passion for something and you just go and you train, attain your goal, whether it be making this discovery that you truly believe in, or for me, it was trying to be the best in the world. It’s a grind and, honestly, I love that grind. And my mother did too.” – Susan Francia, CBC Radio, 4 October 2023