Meet the Woman Searching for a COVID-19 Vaccine
In a field dominated by white men, scientist Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., is making waves while inspiring Black women and girls everywhere.
It doesn’t take more than a quick look at the ranks of scientists working for top health agencies to realize something’s missing: namely, women and people of color in leadership roles. Without Black female scientists to look up to, fewer young Black girls see themselves finding jobs in science, technology, engineering, or medicine - known as the STEM fields - perpetuating the cycle of these positions being filled by white men.
Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D, a viral immunologist on the front lines of finding a COVID-19 vaccine, is hoping to change that. Just 34 years old, Corbett is the scientific lead on vaccine trials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This true trailblazer is committed to not only finding a vaccine for the biggest health crisis of the 21st century, but also to serving as a role model for the next generation of Black girls who are considering careers in STEM.
A Scholar from the Start
Growing up in a small rural town in North Carolina, Corbett fell in love with learning. Her fourth grade teacher noticed she was doing work at levels far above her classmates and encouraged Corbett’s mother to allow her daughter to enter a program for gifted students.
Corbett excelled in science, too, and began dreaming in high school about becoming a researcher. In 10th grade, she was nominated for Project SEED, an academic program that allowed her to spend the summer working in an organic chemistry lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill. The opportunity fueled her passion further, and in her senior year of high school, Corbett received a minority STEM student scholarship to the University of Maryland.
Where Are the Black Women?
After graduating college and getting her Ph.D. from UNC, Corbett became a biological science trainer at NIH. She was the only Black woman on the team. Here are the hard facts: While there are more Black scientists today than there were a generation ago, women like Corbett are still a rarity in the research world. Less than 30 percent of scientific researchers are female, and just 9 percent of the STEM workforce is Black.
Those massively lopsided statistics can play out in a disturbing way when it comes to research as well, especially the type of work that Corbett is doing. Clinical trials without an equal representation of race and gender raise significant questions about the validity of a vaccine: How do you know if a treatment is truly effective for everyone, if it’s only been tested on a small subset of the population?
Taking on COVID-19
When the pandemic spread earlier this year, Corbett was already working on the development of vaccine antigens for SARS and MERS, viral infections related to COVID-19. With a deep understanding of how those viruses work, Corbett was asked to shift her focus entirely to the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Her team has been working at an unprecedented pace since early spring, partnering with biotech company Moderna, to create a vaccine prototype. They launched their Phase 1 vaccine trial in just 66 days; right now, the Phase 3 trial is underway. Through it all, Corbett has worked tirelessly to prioritize safety as well as efficacy, all while serving as an advocate to communicate with the Black community.
Building that bridge of trust between the Black community and the scientific one will take more than just one person. It will require filling the academic halls and research laboratories with as many Black people as there are whites, and as many women as there are men. It is no surprise that Corbett makes mentoring other young Black female scientists a regular part of her busy schedule.
If it sounds like Corbett is doing it all—well, she kind of is. But you can play a part as well:
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COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) was formed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the US National Institutes of Health to respond to the global pandemic. Using the infectious disease expertise of their existing research networks and global partners, NIAID has directed the networks to address the pressing need for vaccines and monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) against SARS-CoV-2.
Scientific researchers less than 30% female: World Economic Forum https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/stem-gender-inequality-researchers-bias
STEM workforce 9% Black: Pew Research Foundation https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/diversity-in-the-stem-workforce-varies-widely-across-jobs/