By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s success story began long before she helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine for Moderna.
Corbett is a University of North Carolina graduate and an NIH postdoctoral fellowship recipient who now works at Harvard. She not only symbolizes this year’s Women’s History Month theme: “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” she represents a small but growing community of Black female scientists, who do not plan to remain in the shadows like the three Black female scientists who starred in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.”
Specifically, Corbett, 37, was the lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health when her team developed and evaluated the COVID-19 vaccine for Moderna, the pharmaceutical company that developed one of the two mRNA vaccines that have shown to be more than 90 percent effective.
“I know that I’ve invented a vaccine, but I definitely come from a place where that probably was not supposed to happen,” Corbett told USA Today when she was selected Woman of the Year in 2022.
“In so many aspects, the odds were stacked against me. And so it was a proud moment, especially because I am a first-generation, four-year college graduate. I’ll hold on to that one for a long time.”
Corbett earned her doctoral degree in microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina. She is a first-generation, four-year college graduate. As a student, she was selected to participate in Project SEED, a program for gifted minority students.
Project SEED allowed her to study chemistry in UNC labs. She eventually landed a full scholarship the University of Maryland Baltimore County, according to The Washington Post.
“The reason that I started to work in coronavirus was not to ever develop a vaccine, but really to have such a strong understanding in vaccine immune responses that we could potentially develop one,” Corbett explained in a December 2020 ABC News interview.
Corbett first made headlines in March 2020 as part of a team of scientists who spoke with President Donald Trump at the NIH. At the time, COVID-19’s global impact had yet to be felt in America.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci seemed to sense the new vaccine’s impact.
“The vaccine you are going to be taking was developed by an African-American woman and that is just a fact,” Fauci said, during the vaccine’s rollout. “Kizzy is an African-American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”
Corbett told ABC News she attributes her success to being a partner on Fauci’s team. Her work with pathogens began when she joined the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center as a postdoctoral fellow in 2014. She spent her summers at laboratories and earned a summer internship at the NIH, the very place where she would be instrumental in developing a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Corbett is currently an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.