• Sofia Eugeniou

Kizzmekia Corbett, the African-American scientist leading us to COVID-19 vaccine victory

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Known as ‘Kizzy”, Kizzmekia is an American viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (NIH) based in Bethesda, Maryland.

At 34 years old, Kizzmekia has already made hugely important contributions to science, especially in the immunology field.

Breaking through the typically white and male-heavy environment that dominates science, being both African-American and a woman makes Kizzmekia’s position in the scientific field both rare and highly admirable.

As a child, Kizzmekia’s natural academic talent and desire to learn did not go unnoticed. N.C., Brasher, a teacher at Oak Lane Elementary School in Hurdle Mills, was first to identify Kizzmekia as an exceptional student who deserved to learn in an environment that pushed her intellectually.

Image credit: UNC Health Care.

Placed in advanced reading and maths classes at Oak Lane helped prepare Kizzmekia for a life as a scientist, where she now works at the NIH.

Currently, Corbett is heading the government’s search for a vaccine to help end the coronavirus outbreak that continues to claim lives and place thousands in economic despair.

Unfortunately, being in the spotlight comes with a level of visibility and public scrutiny that cannot normally go unavoided. Kizzmekia has had to handle her fair share of this, especially as a black woman in a field dominated by white men.

Tweeting on Feb. 27, Corbett highlighted the lack of diversity on President Trump’s COVID-19 task force: “The task force is largely people (white men) he appointed to their positions as a director of blah blah institute. They are indebted to serve him NOT the people”.

Triggered by Corbett’s tweet and ready to attack, Fox News host Tucker Carlson questioned her “commitment to scientific inquiry and rational thought”, also accusing Corbett of “spouting lunatic conspiracy theories”.

Fair treatment? Hardly.

Since the twitter feud, the Department of Human Health and Human Services, which oversees the department where Corbett works, has carried out an investigation into her tweets. Although no major repercussions have come of her posts, Corbett has been advised of ‘social media guidelines’.

In response, Corbett has taken a step back from the use of social media and has reduced her appearances on television and radio.

Writing this article from the perspective of both a woman and someone from an ethnic minority background, it is hard to not be disheartened by stories such as this.

Why should the mass media, and scientists alike, slander and silence “controversial” comments by individuals such as Kizzmekia?

Instead of belittling Corbett and effectively ignoring her astounding talents and fantastic efforts in the field of science so far, shouldn’t we try to understand her position, despite the colour of our skin? Shouldn’t we try to support women, particularly of colour, in the field of science? Shouldn’t we try to give opportunities to as many people just like Kizzmekia as possible?

Just imagine the talent we could uncover and the discoveries we could lead to if more people like Kizzmekia were given the same chances.

Despite Corbett’s political stance on things, it is the science we should be celebrating. If Kizzmekia's work is successful and an effective COVID-19 vaccine is found, nothing else would matter. I’m sure individuals like Tucker Carlson would agree.

With Corbett’s team completing the first clinical trial for the development of a vaccine in early March, the team hopes to have a vaccine by the middle of next year.

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