As a teenager growing up in Hillsborough, Kizzmekia Corbett had never seen a Black scientist before. Then she walked into a lab at UNC-Chapel Hill one summer, met Albert Russell, a PhD student, and for the first time believed she could be one.
Now, at 34, Corbett is the scientific lead for the government’s search for a coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.
“It made all the difference, I’m probably here because of that,” Corbett said. “Just knowing that it was possible.”
She’s become that example that she never saw and is now an assurance to other inquisitive, smart girls with an interest in science that anything is possible.
Corbett is a young, Black woman in a sea of older, white men in suits and lab coats. She’s making appearances on national TV as a scientific expert, briefing President Donald Trump about potential COVID-19 vaccines and working on the front lines to find a way to stop this pandemic.
“I want her to have a seat at that table for all the reasons you are witnessing through the pandemic and all the protesting,” said Dr. Barney Graham. “Not just because she’s competent, but she represents a generation of young people and African-American scientists who need a seat at the table.”
Graham is Corbett’s mentor and boss as the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, which are part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.
Corbett is viral immunologist and a research fellow in Graham’s lab and leads the team that has been working on coronaviruses for the past five years. Corbett has been heading the basic research and analyzing the pre-clinical data that’s been fundamental for developing and testing a vaccine for COVID-19.
There are more than 2.4 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. and more than 120,000 people have died from COVID-19 as cases continue to surge. The vaccine the team is working on is in phase two of human clinical trials and is expected to enter phase three in July.
Their work has already also made an impact on the way people think about vaccine development in terms of the speed at which it can happen, Graham said.
“We’re all working 24-7, and we’re hoping that it will make an impact,” Graham said. “And [the vaccine] will be safe and effective and prevent some of this damage that the coronavirus is doing.”
For her coronavirus research efforts, Corbett is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region.
The girl with book smarts
Corbett is one of seven siblings, and she’s always been the one with book smarts, her sister Tameka Street said. Street, 33, is Corbett’s cousin who was adopted into their family and is just a year younger than her.
Corbett took advanced reading and math classes at Oak Lane Elementary school and was always a competitor, whether in Girl Scouts or the science fair.
“She made sure her project was going to be the one that won,” Street said. “She’s always been known for her smartness.”
Corbett took AP courses, was in the top of her class in high school and in 10th grade joined a summer program called Project SEED, which allows minority and economically disadvantaged students to study chemistry in university labs including UNC-Chapel Hill. She was also on the homecoming court and was constantly texting her friends and raving about the latest R&B hits in that lab at UNC.
Corbett was an “excellent student and always came ready to work,” said Russell, who was finishing up his doctorate in organic chemistry at UNC when Corbett came in as his lab assistant.
“That’s rare to see a Black female that interested in science,” Russell said.
His first impression was that Corbett was hilarious, precocious and had a spark. Her intellect and capacity to learn were far above other students her age, he said.
“For her to be in a lab during the summer and being enthusiastic about it, that set her apart from her peers right there,” Russell said. “For her to come and understand what was going on, that set the bar even higher.”
Russell, now a chemistry professor and department chair at Tuskegee University, said he saw Corbett as a little sister and needed to look out for her as her mentor.
“I knew she was going to do something great because of her demeanor and work ethic,” Russell said. “Seeing her on CNN or standing next to the president, that I didn’t see coming.”
She said without his mentorship, she wouldn’t have gotten there. She was a high school student and saw this guy from Alabama working in a big fancy laboratory who talked like her and who could relate to her in so many ways, she said. It stuck with her.
Corbett helped with the experiments, fell in love with the science and later earned a scholarship for minority STEM students through the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
There, she was introduced to the NIH and worked in Graham’s lab during and after her undergraduate education through a post-baccalaureate research program. Then she returned to North Carolina to earn her PhD in microbiology and immunology from the UNC School of Medicine and study under professor Aravinda de Silva.
Corbett then pursued her career at the NIH and through a post doctoral fellowship in Graham’s lab. That’s where she decided to work on coronaviruses, which was “somewhat unknown and no one really cared about it.”
“That work proved to be fruitful in this moment,” Corbett said.
Finding a coronavirus vaccine
Corbett said she’s been running off of adrenaline since the pandemic hit.
“I never thought that we’d be here. … We predicted pandemics, but the extent to which this one is happening is mind-blowing,” Corbett said. “It’s surreal to be in the middle of it and watching it all play out.”
In addition to analyzing data, designing experiments and writing papers, Corbett helps manage the collaborations set up with investigators at UNC-CH, Vanderbilt and UT-Austin and The Scripps Research Institute. Each group is studying different things in their labs, but they’re working together to understand how antibodies can neutralize this coronavirus, find treatments and develop vaccines.
The NIH team’s vaccine was the first to enter a phase one clinical trial, and the antibody they discovered was also the first to go into clinical trial, Graham said. The work they had done ahead of time put them in a position to move rapidly. Now, the team is preparing to study how the vaccine performs in a clinical trial that could include about 20,000 people around the United States, Graham said.
“We have to wait to see if we can generate the data that can turn that into a product,” Graham said.
If everything goes smoothly, Graham said they may be able to have a vaccine to be widely distributed within 12 to 18 months. But that timeline is still an aspiration.
“This is exactly the kind of work that I foresaw myself doing,” Corbett said
She came to this research center because she wanted to be able to watch their science translate into something that was real and useful and help people, Corbett said.
“Having one piece of what could be possibly a solution to this pandemic and ending this pandemic … there’s so much pressure,” Corbett said. “I just hope that all the work that we’re doing … gives people a little bit of hope.”
While she hasn’t experienced this type of pressure, she said, she’s prepared to handle it.
“I’ve always liked Kizzmekia because she was undaunted,” Graham said. “It’s one of those traits in a scientist that you can’t really teach.
“That resiliency that if you have a problem, you figure it out and if you have a setback, you try it again and take a different direction,” Graham said.
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Full of confidence and ambition
Corbett said it’s a privilege and honor to be in this position at the NIH and to be in these spaces where very few people are young, Black or female. And she’s grateful for Grahams’ belief in her to take on this role and stand at the podium among politicians and world-renowned doctors and researchers.
But, she wonders whether her male colleagues are ever asked how they feel to be in a room with her. She said women have to start thinking that it’s an honor for those men to be working with them.
“Society makes you feel like you are here because someone placed you here and now you owe them something,” Corbett said. “Or you’re here so you should just be grateful.”
She said that’s why women don’t ask for raises or negotiate and say they’re just so happy to be hired. And that needs to change.
“If that means everyone should drink ego tea,” Corbett said. “That’s what we should sip.”
She said she’s not yet where she wants to be in her career, and her bosses are still older and white.
Corbett has made her ambition clear since she started at the NIH.
One moment that stands out to Graham is when he asked her what she wanted for her future before she got her PhD.
“Well, I want to take your job,” Corbett told Graham without much hesitation, he said. “That’s the kind of ambition she has for herself.”
Graham is supportive of that dream, saying it’s one of his career goals to make sure she has a successful scientific career as an independent scientist or well-established faculty member.
Corbett said she’s always wanted to be her own boss and still wants that job as a principal investigator. She said it’s the “ideal type of job for a scientist” to be running a laboratory where everyone works toward scientific goals, answering research questions and conducting experiments that she directs.
She’s confident she’ll get there one day.
Setting an example for family
Outside the lab, Graham said Corbett is a kind, soft-hearted person who likes to take care of people and celebrate everything. Whether it’s making sure there are cupcakes for birthdays or organizing gifts for a baby shower, Corbett makes sure people are noticed, he said.
That generosity and care is also focused on her family, most of whom are still in North Carolina.
Her nieces “adore her,” and while they can’t see each other in person right now, they Facetime before Corbett heads into the lab and text loving photos that interrupt data reviews.
Corbett is the aunt that shows up to everything and spoils her nieces and nephews, Street said.
She’ll say yes to fruit roll-ups for breakfast, secretly send a new iPod when mom says ‘no,’ drive down for roller skating birthday parties and sit in the stands for a softball tournament, even if it means catching a last-minute bus.
At Christmas, Corbett makes sure every kid has at least one gift. And she’s just as competitive during silly family games as she has been in her academic pursuits.
Corbett is also an inspiration to her nieces, and they are overjoyed every time they see her on TV, Street said.
“Her being in the spotlight …” Street said, “as a Black single mom of two kids and my sister being one of the top people being talked about … It’s something we don’t want to stop.
“It’s powerful to us,” Street said.
One of Street’s girls is interested in engineering at her STEM elementary school and goes to STEM camp every summer. Her other daughter is a tomboy who is free-spirited, full of life and not afraid, which also comes from her Aunt Kizzy, Street said.
“She does inspire them to be the best thing they can be,” Street said.
Corbett is a great example to Russell’s kids as well, because she knew what she wanted and she went and got it.
He said it’s amazing that this girl from rural North Carolina ended up standing next to the president in the middle of an international pandemic as a person who could potentially stop the crisis. What’s most impressive about that rise is the fact that she has stayed true to herself, he said.
Corbett’s Instagram is filled with photos of nights out in Washington D.C., trips to Mexico with her girlfriends, video interviews of her on CNN and posts about an antibody therapy entering human clinical trials. She joked on Twitter that she’ll ask rappers Young Jeezy and DaBaby to perform if she ever wins a Nobel Prize.
Russell said she shows that she’s just a regular person who happens to be doing this incredible work.
”She has a charisma about her and a sense of style,” Russell said. “She’s always going to be dressed to the nines and presentable.”
A scientist isn’t just “Doc” Brown from “Back to The Future” or some character running around in a lab coat, Russell said.
His kids and other young people look at Corbett on TV and know they can go to college and grad school and become scientists.
They think “oh wow, she’s just like me,” he said.
“Honestly, in STEM that’s really what you have to have,” Russell said. “It makes it look doable.”