Alicia Costábile: ‘In the right place at the right time’

October 26, 2023

Alicia Costábile, technical assistant at the Virus Experimental Evolution Laboratory of IP Montevideo, began an internship in the laboratory of Dr. Drew Weissman, at the University of Pennsylvania, a week before the scientist received, together with the Hungarian Katalin Karikó, the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2023 for his findings that allowed the development of RNA vaccines.

Alicia tells in her words how she lived the experience of being ‘in the right place at the right time’:

I arrived in Philadelphia very excited to be able to do an internship in the laboratory of Dr. Weissman, an expert in the field of mRNA vaccines, a topic that we are trying to address in Uruguay with Gonzalo Moratorio and Pilar Moreno. Learning firsthand how to produce these vaccines from those who know best was my goal for this internship.

When Gonzalo asked me to come, the first thing he told me, besides the experience of working in a first class laboratory and everything I was going to learn, was that there was no doubt that Dr. Weissman was going to be awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on this topic. With great enthusiasm we began to prepare for the trip, initially planned for June, but due to the deadlines for obtaining the visa, it was postponed to September.

Only a week after starting to go to the lab, the news arrives. That day I didn’t have any training planned in the lab, but after the initial shock and the celebration with my colleagues in Uruguay via WhatsApp, I went to the lab: ‘I have to be there to see what happens’, I thought.

People were somewhere between shocked and excited, kind of the same feeling as me, but I guess more exacerbated by working directly with a Nobel laureate. We went to a toast at the Faculty of Medicine at noon, and in the afternoon we received Weissman in his new and modern laboratory, with applause and words from authorities. Every year I saw on Twitter the reception they gave to the Nobel laureates in their labs, and now I was in one! The wave of applause as he entered the lab occurred just as I had seen in networks with other Nobelists. I remember his words, thanking his team for their work, and inviting them to think about the future, where this technology can take us in 10 or 20 years.

In the following days, the lab continued as usual, with the Wednesday ‘Lab Meetings’ and everyone working on their projects, although surely more excited and proud.

I can only think that not only did I learn how to produce mRNA vaccines, but that it was in the laboratory of a Nobel laureate. Living this moment is undoubtedly something I will always remember, just for being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time (thanks embassy for delaying the date of the interview). Talking to my colleagues in Uruguay, I jokingly said, ‘I’ve run out of luck for the rest of my life’. But the great Cora Chalar told me: ‘Maybe it’s just the beginning of a good run!’. I will work to make it happen.

Alicia Costábile