“Lives are about to be saved. Hospitals will become less overwhelmed. Normal times will slowly begin again.”

Dr. Corbett

So stated Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Shanta Corbett when the COVID-19 vaccine began to be distributed to the United States. Born in 1986 in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, the now 33-year-old viral immunologist has worked at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2014.

Kizzmekia Corbett-7c52b1c5
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. Courtesy National Institutes of Health

Kizzy’s life was like so many girls in America. One in a large family of step- and foster siblings, Kizzy attended Oak Lane Elementary and A. L. Stanback Middle, where teachers recognized her talent for science. In 2004, she graduated from Orange High School and attended the University of Maryland, receiving a Bachelor’s in biological sciences and sociology. Six years later, she received her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

These experiences were inspired by her early engagement with – and encouragement in – the sciences. During high school, she participated in ProjectSEED, a summer program where students worked in research laboratories at the University of North Carolina. She also completed an internship in Dr. Gloria Viboud’s lab studying the Yersinia pseudotuberculosis pathogenesis, worked as a lab tech in Dr. Susan Dorsey’s lab at the University of Maryland, and served as a biological sciences trainer at the NIH alongside Dr. Barney Graham. What stands out most in these experiences is two key points: Kizzy was encouraged to pursue internships while in high school and was exposed to female scientists at a fairly young age. Both these keys have been repeatedly shown to increase the likelihood a girl pursues her love of science as a career. During graduate school, she served as a research fellow at the NIH, focusing on the development of novel vaccines for coronaviridae, including the SARS and MERS vaccines.

Yet Kizzy’s greatest achievement was yet to come. At the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kizzy began working on a vaccine, basing it on her work with SARS. She recalled on Instagram:

In early December, as the vaccine she worked months to produce began distribution, her efforts were recognized by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, during a television forum hosted by the National Urban League. His recognition of a Black women scientist has sent shockwaves through the nation, lifting up recognition of the presence – and accomplishments – of their work. Kizzy has now entered the history books as one of the key players in hopefully ending the pandemic.

Yet Kizzy is also significant because she is, first and foremost, an inspiration for Black girls who love science – providing the role model many Black girls need. As a Black woman scientist at the front lines of cutting edge research, Kizzy is similar to her own mentors, who likely played a huge role in providing the representation needed to encourage future girl scientists.

“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 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. Corbett

Additionally, Kizzy is a beacon for the many Blacks who are hesitant to get the vaccine. Throughout the pandemic, Black communities have been infected and killed at a disproportionate rate across the country, according to the CDC. Getting the vaccine into Black communities is integral to stopping the spread, but that can only happen if Blacks agree to receive it. According to a November poll, only 55% said they would take the vaccine if it was proven safe and effective. Compared to the U.S. population overall, of which 73% stated they would take it, there is a significant gap about Blacks – troubling news for communities already disproportionately affected.

At a 90% effectiveness rate, Kizzy’s vaccine – released by Moderna – is that beacon. Now, the work begins to convince others – including all Americans – to get it.

“So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman. And that is just a fact.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci

– Tiffany Rhoades, Program Developer

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