Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Photo courtesy Black Health Matters)

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the leader of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Vaccine Research Center’s (VRC) Coronavirus Team, a young Black woman known affectionately as “Dr. Kizzy” has been integral to the record-setting pace in which lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines have been developed.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on infectious diseases and a ubiquitous figure in the battle against COVID-19 in America, has consistently heaped praise upon Dr. Corbett during this global pandemic that has killed millions. He recently wrote glowingly about her in Time magazine’s issue chronicling the “2021 Time 100 Next.”

“Kizzmekia Corbett, the scientific lead of the Vaccine Research Center’s coronavirus team at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is widely recognized in the immunology community as a rising star,” Fauci wrote in the article published Feb. 17.

“For the past six years, she has focused on coronavirus biology and vaccine development. During the pandemic, those years of research led to the discovery that a stabilized version of a spike protein found on the surface of all coronaviruses can be a key target for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. She and her colleagues have been central to the development of the Moderna nRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody that were first to enter clinical trials in the U.S. and now have the authorization for emergency use,” he added. “As a result, her work will have a substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease in more than 100 years.”

It seems clear that Dr. Corbett, 35, known affectionately as “Dr. Kizzy” has emerged as a global scientific force of nature, instrumental in ridding the earth of a scourge that has claimed millions around the world and more than a half-million Americans. And this science supernova has academic roots right here in Maryland.

She was born in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina January 26, 1986, to Rhonda Brooks, who was a single mother. But Corbett grew up in Hillsborough, North Carolina in a home with a large family including several step-siblings and foster siblings.

Her academic prowess and exceptional brain for science apparently were recognized early on by elementary school teachers who encouraged Corbett’s mother to place her in advanced classes.

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In 2004, she graduated from high school and that fall she entered the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), a university renowned worldwide for its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curriculum. Corbett specifically entered UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which has been at the forefront of the national effort to increase diversity in STEM on the college level. She graduated from UMBC with a B.S. in biological sciences and sociology in 2008. And Corbett went on to receive her PhD in microbiology and immunology in 2014, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That same year the young scientist was hired by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC), in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s when she began her trailblazing work on the development of novel coronavirus vaccines including the aforementioned mRNA-1273, which was one of the leading candidate vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19. Dr. Corbett and her team at NIH were instrumental in the development of the viral sequence data that led to the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Ultimately, Corbett stands perhaps unparalleled as the living embodiment of the importance of diversity in STEM and is very passionate about her role as a mentor to aspiring scientists of every race, ethnicity and gender.

“To be living in this moment where I have the opportunity to work on something that has imminent global importance…it’s just a surreal moment for me,” Corbett told UMBC Magazine, in March 2020.

Corbett has urgently focused on making sure the unique historical concerns of Black people and other people of color are met. For her, the importance of those communities having access to and ultimately taking these life saving vaccines that she has taken the lead in developing is paramount.

“I have studied health disparities since I was in college. I’m a double major in sociology. I understand the intricate interlacing of science and health, particularly for disparities, and particularly for people of colour,” Corbett told the international journal Nature in February. “So it’s near and dear to my heart. It’s actually the reason vaccine development is important to me, and is where I chose to take my viral-immunology career,” she added.

“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.”

 

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor