Advancing the fight against viruses, stereotypes, and health disparities
“Vaccines have the potential to be the equalizer of health disparities, especially around infectious diseases. I could never sleep at night if I developed anything — if any product of my science came out — and it did not equally benefit the people that look like me. Period.”
- Kizzmekia Corbett, Nature interview, 2021
Dr. Kizzmekia (Kizz-ME-key-uh) Corbett has been celebrated as a gifted scientist and a key leader in the development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. She has also played a critical role as a science communicator and advocate for communities of color.
Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett was born on January 26, 1986, in Hurdle Mills, a rural North Carolina town. She was raised in Hillsborough, located near Durham and Chapel Hill, living with her mother, Rhonda Brooks, her stepfather and several siblings, including step and foster siblings. The family recognized that Kizzmekia had a bright and inquisitive mind early on and noticed her strong determination and drive. “Kizzy was always like a detective,” Brooks recalled (NBC, 2020).
As a child, Dr. Corbett would describe her goal as being the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Her mother noted, “When she’s got her mind set on something, it’s set. She can do anything” (UMBC, 2021). Also apparent from childhood was Kizzmekia’s compassion and care for others, as reflected one day when she asked her mother if a friend from school with nowhere to go could come and stay at their home (UMBC, 2021).
Education and Training
Dr. Corbett’s school teachers encouraged her family to look for opportunities to nurture and challenge their budding scientist. In high school, Corbett was selected for ProjectSEED, a summer program established by the American Chemical Society that provides opportunities for students from traditionally underrepresented groups to explore science careers.
After graduating high school, Corbett attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) with a full scholarship in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, aimed at increasing diversity among future leaders in STEM. She also worked summers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Vaccine Research Center. She worked in the lab of Dr. Barney Graham, who would later become a career mentor and her supervisor. In addition to her laboratory research studies and internships, Corbett also developed an interest in sociology, graduating in 2008 with a double major in biological sciences and sociology.
Dr. Corbett pursued her doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studying antibody responses to dengue fever virus. After receiving her PhD in microbiology and immunology in 2014, Corbett joined the NIH as a postdoctoral fellow, working as an immunologist in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
At NIH, Dr. Corbett’s research included studying coronaviruses, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and working on vaccine development. While her work with coronavirus vaccine development had not focused on a single approach to vaccination, once the COVID-19 pandemic started, Corbett was asked to lead a team of scientists who quickly focused on a previously explored but unlicensed approach — mRNA vaccine technology. They partnered with the biotechnology company Moderna to develop and test an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. In this vaccine, messenger RNA, or mRNA, delivers instructions that the cells use to generate the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. As the immune system responds to these spike proteins, it becomes adept at recognizing this virus, so that during future encounters, it is ready to quickly respond and stop the virus from causing severe illness or death. Watch this animation to find out more about how COVID-19 mRNA vaccines work.
In March 2020, Dr. Corbett, along with her colleagues Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Barney Graham, gave a tour of the lab to top government officials with Corbett sharing her research and answering questions. A few days later, President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus relief bill for $8.3 billion dollars, including funds specifically earmarked for vaccine research.
Along with helping to design the vaccine, Dr. Corbett led the preclinical studies for the Phase I clinical trial and worked to create the assays used to test clinical trial samples. During the Moderna vaccine trials, Corbett worked to ensure that people of color were included in the studies in numbers reflective of their proportion of the general population. In December of 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
In the spring of 2021, Dr. Corbett became an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, heading the Coronaviruses & Other Relevant Emerging Infectious Diseases (CoreID) Lab. She is also the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Dr. Corbett has received numerous awards, including The 2020 Golden Goose Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the 2020 Norman P. Salzman Memorial Award in Basic and Clinical Virology from the Foundation for National Institutes of Health, the 2020 Early Career Applied and Biotechnological Research Award from the American Society for Microbiology, the 2021 Benjamin Franklin NextGen Award from the Franklin Institute, and the 2021 African Americans in Health Care Award from Kaiser Permanente. In the fall of 2021, Dr. Corbett was the keynote speaker at the “Creativity in Science” event honoring the winners of the Vaccine Education Center’s 2021 Maurice R. Hilleman Essay Contest.
In addition to her research, Dr. Corbett is a vocal advocate for health equity and uses her talent for science communication to reach out to others, especially those with questions about vaccines. Reframing vaccine hesitancy as “vaccine inquisitiveness,” Dr. Corbett has spoken at churches and other community organizations, working to demystify the science of vaccines and improve confidence in the coronavirus vaccine, especially among minority populations, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Dr. Corbett embraces her visibility as a young, Black female scientist and is aware of being a role model. She encourages others to be involved in science and in their communities, and to be themselves. Dr. Corbett describes herself as Christian, sassy, bright, fashionable, Southern, and empathetic, stating that all of these aspects of her identity are integral to her success. “I’m all of these things that make me into this person, that make me a better scientist. I think that is the most important part of the story—that people drive the research.” (UMBC, 2021).
References and resources for further reading
- Nature: “This COVID-vaccine designer is tackling vaccine hesitancy — in churches and on Twitter”
- NBC News: “Working on coronavirus vaccine trials, Kizzmekia Corbett is 'not your average' scientist”
- UMBC Magazine: “Her Science Is the World’s”
- The Franklin Institute awards: Kizzmekia S. Corbett
- Harvard University: Leading coronavirus scientist, Kizzmekia S. Corbett, to join Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to continue vaccine development research
- Radcliffe professor profile: Kizzmekia S. Corbett
Banner image credit: AP Images