Updated: Feb 25
At the ripe old age of thirty-four, Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett used her skills as a viral immunologist to alter the course of a world-wide pandemic.
Corbett grew up in Hillsborough, North Carolina in the 1990s. As early as fourth grade, her teachers told her mother that Kizzmekia was gifted. In high school, she participated in Project SEED, which enabled her to work as a summer intern in university research labs. After receiving a full scholarship and earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Baltimore, she worked at the National Institute of Health (NIH) studying respiratory viruses and vaccine development. From there, she earned her Master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Corbett returned to the NIH in 2014 as a viral immunologist, studying the ways viruses cause disease and how the human immune system responds. While studying SARs viruses, she discovered a simple way to make stable coronavirus spike proteins that could be easily manufactured for a vaccine. As the Covid-19 virus started to spread in early 2019, Corbett and her team, in collaboration with University of Texas at Austin researchers, developed processes and tools that would make the Moderna vaccine possible. Corbett’s prior research on mRNA showed that these messengers could be used to instruct the immune system to make antibodies against Covid-19. In a record sixty-six days after first receiving the genetic code for the virus, Corbett’s team had paved the path for Moderna to give the first shot in Phase 1 trials for the vaccine.
In a Time Magazine profile of her, NIH Director Anthony Fauci singled Dr. Corbett out for her ground-breaking work. In a 2021 CNN article profiling six Black women who were leading the fight against Covid, Corbett shared that she cried when the efficacy results showed the mRNA-1273 Moderna vaccine worked. From the article:
“I felt like there was no room for mistakes, which was difficult because science – mistakes are actually part of the beauty of it,” Corbett said. “Not necessarily tons of mistakes, but you learn a lot from things that don’t necessarily always go right with experiments. But in this case, we only had the bandwidth to learn from things that were going to go right. Otherwise, you lost time and people died.” …
…Corbett acknowledged the data that shows many people of color don’t trust the vaccine and don’t plan on taking it. She said the onus is on scientists, physicians and vaccine developers to prove they are trustworthy.
“What I say to people, firstly, is that I empathize and then, secondly, is that I’m going to do my part in laying those bricks,” Corbett said. “And I think that if everyone on our side, as physicians and scientists, went about it that way, then the trust would start to be rebuilt.”
In an ABC News interview, she also addressed the need she felt to be a visible proponent of the work being done on the vaccine. She explained:
"I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak," Corbett said. "I felt that it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes and essentially [who have] done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine.
This person who looks like you has been working on this for several years and I also wanted it to be visible because I wanted people to understand that I stood by the work that I'd done for so long as well."
The disproportionate impact the pandemic had on people of color greatly affected Dr. Corbett’s awareness of health disparities. She dedicates a great deal of time to underserved communities, advocating for STEM education and for vaccine awareness. She is the first to acknowledge the reasons why the public in general and the Black community specifically, is wary of vaccine programs. So she tries to explain how the vaccine was developed and how it works. She also volunteers as a way to serve as a role model for Black children who may have an interest in the sciences. Her team is now working on ways to develop a universal vaccine that could provide immunity against all strains of the Covid virus. Since Dr. Corbett just tuned thirty-seven in January, 2023, the odds are certainly in favor of her reaching this goal and leaving her mark in many other ways.