TheGrio Awards, Science Icon: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

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The scientist helped pioneer the development of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Now, she stands at the forefront of community advocacy.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett had no way of knowing the challenges that lay ahead.

In 2019, media reports noted that dozens of people in China were mysteriously falling ill with symptoms that mirrored pneumonia. As a viral immunologist, she would later find out – along with the rest of the world – that the infectious disease running rampant in China and later in the United States was the coronavirus.

As the outbreak grew in China, Dr. Corbett retreated to her office at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assess the research she had been conducting on coronaviruses five years before the pandemic. She was the senior research fellow at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It was there that Dr. Corbett gathered a team of scientists and served as the lead in creating a lifesaving drug that has been cemented in history as the pinnacle of immunization achievements: the Moderna vaccine to combat the viral COVID-19 disease.

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic. In under a year, people began receiving their shots for the Moderna vaccine, and it was shown to be more than 90% effective. Typically, vaccines can take up to 10 years or longer to develop, but Dr. Corbett’s past research in the coronavirus category set the foundation for her team to follow.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett was honored at theGrio Awards 2023. (Photo by James Anthony)

She was mentored by Dr. Barney Graham, the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, as a fellow at NIH in 2014.

She started publishing groundbreaking research about her discoveries on the structures of other coronaviruses and eventually was chosen to spearhead his coronavirus team. Her extensive efforts laid the groundwork that allowed her team and other immunologists to quickly find a solution for the fast-acting disease. Her knowledge of the structure of other coronaviruses and how they spike proteins made it possible for the prompt development of a vaccine – the fastest to ever be developed.

“Around 2015, Kizzmekia decided that the coronavirus was the project she wanted to focus on,” Dr. Graham told the New York Times. “And it was her work that led to what we knew about the coronavirus, and prepared us for making that vaccine so rapidly.”

The speed at which the Moderna vaccine was released makes the lifesaving injection remarkable. Behind the scenes, Dr. Corbett worked more than 70 hours weekly from January 2020 to June 2021. She and her team completed numerous lab tests to prepare a vaccine prototype for the first clinical trials within a few weeks. Once the trials began, they carefully observed the results and remained equipped to modify their approach.

After WHO confirmed the pandemic in March 2020, the first clinical trials started within that same month. By December 2020, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency distribution, saving millions of lives.

Dr. Corbett appeared more in the forefront as one of the key developers of the immunization after making headlines in March 2020. Pictures circulated of her standing in the NIH laboratory surrounded by prominent figures like former President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other influential individuals within the health research and services profession.

Although that was most of America’s official introduction to Dr. Corbett, her work already began before the public took notice. She has committed years of dedicated research and co-authored dozens of published scientific journals. While most are aware of her career because of the momentous accomplishments she achieved, that is not where her story begins.

The North Carolina native knew in high school that she wanted to be a scientist after completing a research internship in the organic chemistry lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her admiration for experimenting, analyzing data and driving results fueled her passion for making scientific discoveries.

Dr. Corbett attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and majored in biology and sociology. She returned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology in 2014. She started her fellowship at NIH in October 2014. Fast-forward nine years, Dr. Corbett serves as an assistant professor at Harvard and is the leader of her lab – positions she started in June 2021.

An essential component of Dr. Corbett’s philosophy is that science and community go hand in hand. Attacking a viral disease was not the only challenge the scientist faced when she developed the Moderna vaccine.

The other battle was navigating misinformation, healthcare disparities and the complicated relationship between African American communities and medical mistrust. In the same way she tackled the coronavirus pandemic head-on, Dr. Corbett used her platform to discuss openly with the public to address hesitations about taking the vaccine.

Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
In this Feb. 11, 2021, file photo, Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looks on as President Joe Biden visits the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the NIH in Bethesda, Md. Corbett played a key role in developing the Moderna vaccine. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

“I had to navigate it with grace – and also understanding,” Dr. Corbett said in a USA Today interview. “I think that what I realized in this moment is that much of the debate around vaccines during this time came because there was so much that we hadn’t taught people, whether it be about how the immune system works or even about the technology that had been really being developed behind the scenes for so many years. And so it was our time to really step away from the science, so to speak, but then to become the world’s vaccine teacher.”

In May 2021, Dr. Corbett took over former first lady Michelle Obama’s Instagram page of 57 million followers to answer questions that users had about the shot. The following month, she held a video conference with the NFL’s Washington Football Team to speak about the immunization and dispel inaccuracies that the football players were exposed to. In November 2021, Dr. Corbett made a special appearance on CNN’s town hall special, “The ABCs of COVID Vaccines,” where she was joined by “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and friends to help answer children’s questions about the vaccine. Dr. Corbett continues to inform the public and respond to concerns about the vaccine and its boosters.

It remains crucial for Dr. Corbett to disseminate accurate information for people, especially African Americans, to understand the science behind the vaccine and its benefits.

“I treated the vaccine like it was [my community’s] to take,” Dr. Corbett told the Boston Globe. “And I treated the knowledge, my knowledge that I had about the vaccine, like it was theirs to know.”

Since joining Harvard two years ago, she has continued her groundbreaking work on vaccinations, expanding her research past coronaviruses to gain a greater understanding of other viruses that could be potential public health threats. She is also focused on carving a path for other Black women scientists to follow and supersede past limitations. She credited her experience of learning from a Black scientist in the beginning stages of her journey as a pivotal moment that solidified her career pursuits.

…” Because I was exposed to a Black scientist, in my first laboratory experience, I’m pretty sure that really set the tone of ‘OK, you can do this. You can do this,'” Dr. Corbett said. “There has to be some reminder, especially because embarking on any career path is certainly not always easy. And so you have to be reminded that you belong there.”

Dr. Corbett’s significant impact on society’s livelihood is rooted in the tenacity of her scientific research and communal outreach. While most heroes wear capes, Dr. Corbett’s cloak is her white coat.

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