The world knows Kizzmekia Corbett as one of the designers of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. And in her new job as an assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Corbett plans to work on vaccine design to help the world better handle future pandemics.
But the 36-year-old from Hillsborough, N.C., is also a passionate promoter of social justice and diversity in science, someone who hopes one day to advise presidents and who feels a deep commitment to public service. She’s frank, openly admitting on Twitter to being “completely in my feels” earlier this month when she was the answer of a Jeopardy question — a show she grew up watching with her grandmother.
Corbett, who worked on the design for the Moderna vaccine in her former job at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center, was recently named to the inaugural STATUS List, which recognizes standout individuals in health, medicine, and science.
We reached out to Corbett, the daughter of a contractor (her father) and a school administrator (her mother), to ask about how she found her way into science, who her inspirations are, and where she thinks the pandemic is going. This transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you come to realize that science was something that you wanted to do and that it was an option for you? I read that your grade 4 teacher, Mrs. Bradsher, urged your parents to put you into advanced placement classes because you were so far ahead of the other kids.
When I was in Mrs Bradsher’s class in elementary school, I was winning regional science fairs, but I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew you could ask a really cool question and make a poster board and put glitter on it, and then win a science fair. If I think back to the types of projects that I was doing, I was really asking fairly advanced questions for an elementary school-aged person.
And then in high school, I went to get an internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And that was very eye-opening for me. I was able to work in a lab, do really cool experiments during the summer, but also I was just kind of exposed to this environment that someone from my background just doesn’t even know existed.
That was the turning point for me.
You got a bachelor of science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and then took a year off from your studies to work at the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH. So you knew pretty early on that you wanted to be in either microbiology or virology or immunology?
I’m not so sure if I chose virology or if it chose me. I really was always interested in the juxtaposition of social inequities in health and at that time, that was HIV. And the VRC was doing HIV vaccine work. And it just felt like a really, really good fit. So I think that’s why I chose to go there. I didn’t actually do HIV vaccine work, but I got to see the inner happenings of it.
You got a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then went back to the VRC. Immediately?
Literally graduated on a Friday, went to the VRC on a Monday. Ten out of 10 would not recommend it. I want to write an op-ed to tell graduate students to take a break.
I always kind of like finish the job on a Friday and started again on a Monday. It’s just like burning yourself out way too early, I think.
Do you have a particular mentor? Someone you admire and aspire to be like?
I have always felt like I really wanted to be like Dr. [Barney] Graham. And it’s not just because of who he is as a scientist. He’s obviously this world-renowned vaccinologist. But he does science and social justice right. He has a presence in increasing diversity in the sciences. He is an extremely amazing mentor to all the people who come underneath his wing. He had this career that spanned academia and public service that was admirable. And you know, and obviously, the science — some of the best in the world.
I read somewhere that he asked you what you wanted to do and you said you wanted his job. Is that true?
Well, he gave up his job last summer. Why did you leave the VRC?
I tend to follow the love — and that’s what I did.
I wanted to have an independent lab. I wanted to be at a place where I felt like my science and my person were both respected, and I wanted to be in a place that understood how important that the science is to the community and had a footprint in the community that was beyond self-serving. And I felt like Harvard Chan will give me those types of opportunities, and they welcomed me with open arms. I don’t say much else about that, but I was offered a job at the VRC and I did not take it.
Is part of the decision-making there about being in academia? Working with students?
No. I don’t actually have a course load or the teaching workload, because I’m research faculty. But I do give lectures quite a bit. Not overwhelmingly, but when I’m asked and I have the time.
There are several different things that went into my decision.
Federal service is a service, right? I basically spent my career since I was 19 doing that. I continue to advise mayors and Congress people, and senators and things like that. And my dream job would be to advise the president one day. But I needed to leave. [She laughs.] I should probably think of a really good media answer for that.
From your vantage point, where do you think the pandemic is going?
The pandemic is not going away for some time on a global scale. I think that the virus, there’s going to be some level of predictability in the cadence of waves as we start to understand variants a little more and we start to understand waning immunity, temperature dependance, and all of these things a little bit more. And then the pandemic is going to go into some seasonality. The type of relief that we’re feeling right now is the same kind of relief we were feeling last year this time. And I expect that to be the same thing next year and the year after.
The kind of relief we feel at the end of flu season?
I think that’s where we’re headed. Hopefully we’re also headed into a space where we continue to acquire … more tools in our toolbox, whether it be vaccines, therapies, and things of that nature. So I think we are on an OK track.
Are you talking about the United States or the world?
I’m talking about the United States. I think that the world view has so many different angles. I would like to see more of the world vaccinated. I would like to see more access to the therapies that we do have and that we know work. I would like to see the price of the monoclonal antibodies be driven down.
What’s your main takeaway from the pandemic? What is the really important thing that you learned?
Probably that you shouldn’t take anything for granted. That the way that we live and the way that we assume that there will be vaccine or a therapy, or there will be something at the end of the road for us because we’ve kind of sat in this bubble of privilege — I think that the pandemic really washed a lot of structural problems ashore. So understanding that none of these privileges that we have should be taken for granted is probably one of the biggest lessons.
I think a lot of people will look at how quickly vaccines were developed and deployed and conclude that we’re always going to be able to do that. But people worked for years researching how to make coronavirus vaccines.
I completely agree.
It looks like, oh, my God, we woke up and we had a vaccine. But the amount of work and the amount of blood and sweat and tears that went into the development process and that continues to go into assessing the vaccine on a day-to-day basis — whether it’s do we need boosters and who do we vaccinate first and what about kids — and all these things that continue to go into this massive pandemic response just cannot be taken for granted.
That’s the major thing that I learned.
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