One of the lead scientists who developed Moderna's coronavirus vaccine is a UNC alumna and an Orange County native.
Kizzmekia Corbett is a graduate of Orange High School and UNC's doctoral program in microbiology and immunology.
“It goes without saying that this is home,” Corbett said at a Jan. 19 Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, where she was honored by the board declaring Jan. 20 "Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett Day." Corbett was also honored by the towns of Hillsborough and Carrboro.
During her time at Orange High School, Corbett trained as a junior researcher in UNC's Kenan Laboratories while in theProject SEED program.
She went on to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar, receiving a bachelor's degree in biological sciences. While attending UMBC, Corbett studied respiratory syncytial virus and focused on why vaccines had not been effective against it.
From 2006 to 2007, Corbett worked as a lab tech in Susan Dorsey’s lab at the University of Maryland's School of Nursing.
“What we always say is you can’t train passion for research,” Dorsey said. “I can train you to do anything, but that passion and that dedication, that resilience, is not trainable. We all saw that very early on and we thought, ‘The sky’s the limit.’"
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Corbett attended UNC, where she got her doctorate in microbiology and immunology. While at UNC, Corbett studied dengue fever, a virus that had proved difficult to create a vaccine for.
She also worked with professor Ralph Baric, someone Corbett described as one of the best coronavirus virologists in the world.
“He studied coronavirus evolution, and it was very clear — even in 2014 when I left UNC — that coronaviruses had this potential to cause pandemics,” Corbett said at the Jan. 19 BOCC meeting.
The U.S. government wasn’t paying enough attention to coronaviruses, she said, which is why she decided to join the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Baric said there is hope the vaccine developed by Corbett and others at the Vaccine Research Center will make a difference.
“She has a real sense for not only the basic science part of what we do, but the personal side of how infectious diseases really impact people on the ground at all social levels,” Baric said. “That’s a rare insight that many of us don’t get to achieve.”
In January 2020, Moderna announced it would be partnering with the National Institute of Health to develop a coronavirus vaccine in the Vaccine Research Center. Clinical trials for the vaccine began in March.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent scientist during the pandemic, praised Corbett in a conference hosted by the National Urban League last December.
“Kizzy is an African American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine,” Fauci said. “So the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine you are going to be taking was developed by an African American woman, and that is just a fact.”
Since the Moderna vaccine was given emergency use authorization by the FDA in December, Corbett has been raising public support for the vaccine, especially within Black communities that have been historically marginalized for the sake of science.
Chapel Hill may be seeing more of Corbett in the future, as she revealed at the meeting that she is being recruited by UNC to become a professor. She has not yet announced whether she will be accepting the position.
For now, Corbett can be found on Twitter, where she posts regular vaccine updates often accompanied by a GIF.
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