In 2020, normalcy came to a standstill as COVID-19 swept the globe. The pandemic consumed millions of lives and forced people into isolation and fear. But amidst the challenging times, certain people took bold steps to make the world better. As the woman behind the COVID vaccine, Kizzmekia Corbett is one of them. Her leadership in developing the Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccine became one of the most effective weapons against the deadly virus.
(Celebrate some lives bold lived and lost in 2022 with this article on Sidney Poitier–one of a series of five Project Bold Life stories!)
Early Life and Education
Born on January 26, 1986, in the rural North Carolina town of Hurdle Mills, Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett lived with her mother, Rhonda Brooks, stepfather, and siblings. Despite growing up in a big family, Corbett’s bright and curious mind was recognized early, along with her strong determination and drive.
Growing up, Corbett’s goal was to be the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine. In school, her teachers encouraged her family to look for more opportunities to nurture and challenge her. One of these was her selection to attend ProjectSEED, a summer program handled by the American Society that gave students like her a chance to explore science careers better.
Upon graduating high school, Corbett was off to study at the University of Maryland with a full scholarship from the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. While in college, she worked summers at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In addition to finishing her degree, she did laboratory research studies and internships. Along the way, Corbett found an interest in sociology. In 2008, she graduated with a double major in biological sciences and sociology.
Furthering her academic pursuits, Corbett attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for her doctoral studies. She focused on studying antibody response to the dengue fever virus. In 2014, she received her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology and soon joined the NIH as a postdoctoral fellow.
“If you can unwind and be true to who you are, it helps to reckon with things. My team is responding to the world’s most devastating global pandemic in the last hundred years. And so, there’s something to be said about knowing who you are.” – Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Career and The Pandemic
After joining NIH in 2014, Dr. Corbett worked as an immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). She focused her research on coronaviruses, like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and worked on vaccine development.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Corbett led a team of scientists focused on the mRNA vaccine technology. Her appointment was a surprise as her studies on vaccine development weren’t centered on a specific approach to vaccination. Despite that, Dr. Corbett agreed to the challenge and partnered with Moderna, a biotechnology company, to develop and test an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine uses RNA or mRNA as messengers to deliver instructions to the cells. They then use these directions to generate the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Once the immune system responds to the proteins, it becomes proficient in virus recognition. When your body encounters them in the future, the cell’s response to stop them from causing severe illness is faster.
Besides helping to design the vaccine, Dr. Corbett also led the preclinical studies for the Phase I clinical trial. In the Moderna vaccine trials, she and her team ensured that people of color were part of the studies proportionate to their number in the general population. By December 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued authorization to use the Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
“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.” – Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Making A Difference: 2021 to Present
In 2021, Dr. Corbett became an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard. She also headed the Coronaviruses and Other Relevant Emerging Infectious Diseases (CoreID) Lab. In addition, Corbett was also the Shutzer Assistant Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Her success with the COVID-19 vaccine won her numerous awards, including the 2020 Golden Goose Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the 2020 Early Career Applied and Biotechnological Research Award from the American Society for Microbiology, and the 2020 Norman P. Salzman Memorial Award in Basic and Clinical Virology from the Foundation for National Institutes of Health.
Besides her studies and research, Dr. Corbett is also an advocate for health equity. She has spoken at churches and community organizations to reframe vaccine hesitancy as “vaccine inquisitiveness.”
More than anything, Dr. Corbett embraces her awareness as a role model and her visibility as a young, Black woman in the field of science. She seeks every opportunity to encourage others to become more involved with their community and science, while never stopping to be themselves.
“I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak, I felt that it was important to do that because of 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.” – Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Dr. Corbett continues to encourage aspiring young scientists and work on cures for other viruses to avoid another global epidemic. She is the embodiment of Bold Living, and is an inspiration for success without sacrificing your true self.
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