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Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett talks future of vaccine research

Dr. Corbett shares that it is important to give yourself grace and ask for help when dealing with mounting responsibilities. Video by Chelsea Martin

NORFOLK, VA — Students, faculty, and staff came to the Brown Memorial Hall Theater as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett spoke as the keynote speaker of the RISE 2022 Conference.

Dr. Corbett, who is one of the leading scientists responsible for developing the Moderna mRNA vaccine, sat down with Dr. Felicia Mebane, Interim Executive Director for the Center of Public Health Initiatives at Norfolk State University, to speak about her background, how she remains grounded and the future of COVID-19.

Although Dr. Corbett is one of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) top scientists in the coronavirus crusade, her history with the government agency runs deeper than that. She spent summers interning at labs all over her state before earning a summer internship at the NIH during her studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Following her studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Corbett took a position with the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center as a postdoctoral fellow.

Dr. Corbett led the preclinical trials that informed the Phase I clinical trials of the now-widely distributed Moderna vaccine while relaying the information to the public in a way that was easy to understand.

“My role is to deliver science in a digestible fashion. When I present a bar chart, I say ‘This is the axis, and this is what you’re seeing, and this is how it was tested.’ So the goal is that eventually people see enough of this and we get to a point where we don’t have to do that anymore,” Dr. Corbett said to Nature.com.

Despite her vast accomplishments with the progression of the Moderna vaccine, Dr. Corbett is aware that the impact of what she has done gets lost amid conversations about race and gender.

“I tend to allow my science to speak in so many ways, but what I did realize is that my science spoke more softly,” she said. “Maybe because I was a black woman. So, I had to enter rooms a little bit louder. I had to talk about my science more.”

Several of Dr. Corbett’s significant contributions to vaccine research are not spoken about more often, including the Eli Lilly antibody treatment that is used to treat COVID-19 once a patient is infected.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls into its second year, many wonder whether or not there is an end in sight and when the world will return to normal. While Dr. Corbett is hopeful that the virus will soon transition into the endemic stage with the help of existing medical treatments, she does not suspect a world without COVID-19 for a very long time.

“We’re here. We are forever living with the coronavirus. Unfortunately, that’s where we are.”

One top priority for Dr. Corbett moving forward is better communications with the public regarding the vaccines. According to an Axios poll conducted in November 2020, 55% of African Americans said that they would take a vaccine if it were proven safe and effective by officials. Vaccine hesitancy in minority communities, especially among college-age students and young professionals, is an issue that health officials are constantly working to fix.

“Young people have definitely been the outlier to a lot of the outreach, mostly because the people who are making the outreach just don’t understand,” Dr. Corbett said. “There’s certainly a gap in communications that I think is needed. We’ve tried but we’ve definitely got a long way to go.”

Dr. Corbett herself is active on Twitter, where she uses her platform to spread the word about innovations in virus biology and disprove any rumors and vaccine misinformation. Dr. Corbett told Nature.com that she also uses the platform to tweet about vaccines to drop the curtain between the closed lab and the public.

“For a long time, we left the general public on the outside of vaccine development, until it was time to give them their shot. And that’s just unacceptable.”

Dr. Corbett expressed that while people were confused by her decision to pursue vaccine research, she would not trade it for anything.

“Even the type of skepticism or criticism that I got because I was interested in doing research on coronaviruses but then there are all of these other diseases that are, as other people would like to say, more important. But I like to say all viruses matter, especially if they have the potential to do all this and there are 26 viral families that have the potential to cause a pandemic. Coronavirus is just one.”

Dr. Corbett finds comfort in knowing that this time, the science was ready and will continue to be as the situation evolves.

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