America's Greatest Disruptors: Hall of Famers

America's Greatest Disruptors: Hall of Famers

Visionaries whose career-long actions have had far-reaching impact

FE Cover Disruptors GRID

Developing the Tech that Made COVID Vaccines Possible

FE_Disruptors_HOF_Katalin Kariko
Hannah Yoon/Bloomberg/Getty


Katalin Karikó admits that at the beginning of 2020, when word began to spread of a novel virus called COVID-19, she really didn't think it would turn into a pandemic. She was as surprised as anyone. But there was one difference: She was ready. She'd been getting ready, in a sense, for almost 40 years.

Karikó, a molecular biologist, had been working since her student days on messenger RNA—mRNA for short—a compound in living cells that carries genetic instructions for making proteins for all sorts of purposes. It has turned out to be the key ingredient in the COVID-19 vaccines jointly made by Pfizer and BioNTech, and by their competitor Moderna.
"I thought this would be good for something," she says now. "I hoped that maybe I would live long enough to see one person who would benefit."

It has not been an easy path. Born and educated in Hungary, she came with her husband and daughter to Philadelphia in 1985, hoping to work her way up as a research scientist studying mRNA at Temple University. But what was the stuff good for? Stroke patients? Cancers? Cystic fibrosis? Diabetes? All of these and more, at least in theory, but mRNA was stubbornly difficult to work with, and early experiments failed. So grant money was hard to come by, and without funding, the American system is unforgiving to young Ph.Ds. In a few years she moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where she bounced from lab to lab, once taking a demotion when more senior scientists couldn't afford to keep her.

Then, in 1998, waiting to use a copying machine, she got to talking with Dr. Drew Weissman, an immunologist who was trying to develop a vaccine for HIV, and thought her experience with mRNA might be helpful. They began to work together.

One of the difficulties with mRNA was that while it can get a cell to make all sorts of proteins, it can also provoke a strong inflammatory reaction. In 2005, Karikó and Weissman found a way to modify it so that it wouldn't—a critical advance in making mRNA vaccines possible. The medical world paid little attention at the time, but by 2013 she got a job offer from BioNTech, then a small German startup. They began to produce mRNA vaccines. When COVID-19 appeared and its genetic code was deciphered, Karikó's colleagues were able to develop the chemistry for a shot in less than a day.

"By that time, we knew," says Karikó. There still needed to be clinical trials in the U.S. and other countries, but the science behind mRNA vaccines had been established. "No matter what vaccination we did—influenza, herpes, HIV—mRNA was so much better than anything available."

Now, with more than 200 million Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, Karikó's life is a succession of award ceremonies, honorary lectures and declarations that she "saved the world." After all those years of struggle, she is the toast of the scientific universe. She admits that she's gotten choked up a few times at people's gratitude, but she fends off any suggestion that she's a hero. Rather, she wishes there had never been a pandemic to make her look like one.

"I always think that the people who are the health care workers, who were taking care of the patients—they were risking their lives every day," she says. "Me? I was not a hero. I never risked my life. I went to the lab." —Ned Potter

Altering DNA to Cure Disease

FE_Disruptors_HOF_Jennifer Doudna
Alexander Heinl/Getty


In defending themselves against attacking viruses, bacteria use a naturally-occurring technique of slicing up a virus' genetic material and pasting it into their own. Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute, found she could harness this technique to edit the DNA of any organism including humans—adding, deleting or replacing new genetic instructions for human cells. This method of gene-editing, known as CRISPR, has proven to be faster, cheaper and more accurate than other approaches. It has already shaken up the world of life sciences, leading to new treatments for genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and some eye and liver diseases.

For this work, Doudna and fellow researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier received the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year. This summer, CRISPR was used to treat a rare disease directly through an intravenous infusion, rather than having to remove cells, manipulate them and reintroduce them to the body, as current methods required. "It's a clear indication that a new era of genetic medicine is now upon us," says Doudna. "I'm hopeful that over the next few years, these results can be replicated to other target disease areas and organs such as the brain and heart, where molecular delivery is more difficult." —Kerri Anne Renzulli


FE_Disruptors_HOF_Elon Musk
Britt Spencer


There are at least two faces of Musk. One is the headline-grabbing rebel-without-cause whose tasteless joke-tweets have drawn the ire of financial regulators, goaded Senator Bernie Sanders about tax policy ("I keep forgetting you're still alive") and compared outgoing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to a victim of a Stalinist purge.
All that noise obscures the other side of Musk—the one who is arguably the most prolific and disruptive technologist of the 21st century. At 50, Musk has racked up an impressive string of firsts or near-firsts.

He's had a hand in building a pioneering digital payment system (PayPal), a reusable rocket (SpaceX) that carries astronauts and supplies for NASA and tourists, and a car company (Tesla) that has played an outsized role in bringing electric vehicles and battery technology for renewable energy into the mainstream. Even bolder ventures are in progress: artificial-intelligence enhancements to the human brain (Neuralink) and high-speed mass-transit tunnels for large cities (The Boring Company and Hyperloop). And he wants to send people to Mars.

Musk draws comparisons to Thomas Edison, who had a similarly broad impact and difficult personality. Whereas Edison was by nature an inventor, Musk is more of an impresario, assembling the technical, business and investing talent he needs in service of a grand engineer's vision. —Fred Guterl

Removing Carbon from the Air

FE_Disruptors_HOF_Klaus Lackner
Arizona State University


Klaus Lackner first floated the idea of removing carbon directly from the air as a way of putting the brakes on climate change in 1999, and he has been devoted to figuring out how ever since.

His single vision can seem like tilting at windmills. The prospect of keeping up with the 33 billion tons of carbon the world releases into the atmosphere each year, let alone removing enough of it to return to pre-industrial levels, is daunting. But the vastness and urgency of the problem argues for pursuing every available means. Lackner's leadership has helped focus some of the world's best minds on carbon capture.

For years, Lackner, a professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, has worked to develop a mechanical tree that removes carbon dioxide a thousand times more efficiently than natural trees and requires no energy to operate. It relies on wind to blow air past resin-encrusted discs, which absorb the greenhouse gas (to be eventually stored permanently underground or reused in industrial processes). A Dublin-based tech company, Carbon Collect, got $2.5 million from the Department of Energy this summer to build three "carbon farms" of Lackner's trees capable of capturing 1,000 tons of the substance each day—about 1,844 American households' worth of emissions.

Carbon capture is now moving into the mainstream. Elon Musk, Microsoft and Occidental Petroleum have made large financial commitments in the last year to technologies for taking carbon directly from the atmosphere. Currently 19 direct-air capture plants are operating around the world, the largest of which came online in September in Iceland. The federal government offers tax credits and the infrastructure bill passed in November includes more than $10 billion for carbon-capture projects, including $3.5 billion to build four regional direct air capture hubs.

It's too early to know if carbon capture will ever amount to more than a drop in the climate bucket. But if someone eventually figures out how to make it work at scale, we'll all owe a debt to Lackner. —K.R.

The Hidden Figure Behind GPS

FE_Disruptors_HOF_Gladys West
Courtesy of Trimble


It's hard to imagine a world without the global positioning system, the network of satellites whose signals provide our digital devices with the ability to determine, with startling accuracy, the precise location of your car stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or tag your pals on social media. GPS wouldn't have been possible without the work of West, a mathematician and computer scientist.

In 1956, West became the second Black woman hired by the U.S. Naval Proving Ground, a weapons laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, and one of just four Black employees. She wrote software for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a program to calculate the position of Pluto relative to Neptune, which won accolades from her peers.

In 1978, she became the project manager of Seasat, an experimental satellite designed to demonstrate the feasibility of gathering data about the oceans from low-earth orbit. That project called for a computer program that could precisely calculate the path of the satellite as it passed over the surface of the Earth, with its mountains and plateaus and oceans. To accomplish it, West first had to devise a way of mathematically representing in detail the shape of the Earth that could be incorporated into the software.

That pioneering work eventually led to GPS, now essential to digital systems that use location tracking—of trucks, packages, cellphones, missiles and airplanes. Ironically, West herself, who was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018 and recently turned 91, prefers navigating by old-fashioned paper maps. —Meghan Gunn

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