Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is an American viral immunologist currently involved in first-stage clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine. Corbett was born on January 26, 1986, in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina to Rhonda Brooks. She attended A.L. Stanback Middle School and Hillsborough High School. During high school, Corbett was part of a program called ProjectSEED, and spent her summer breaks as an intern at research laboratories.
Corbett graduated from Hillsborough High School in 2004, and in 2005, she was a summer intern at SUNY Stonybrook Labs where she studied a pathogen called Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, bacteria that causes scarlet fever in humans. From 2006 to 2007, Corbett worked as a lab tech at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, while attending the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), with a full scholarship in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program at predominantly white institutions is responsible for producing large numbers of African Americans who earn medical and doctoral degrees, including Jerome Adams, the current Surgeon General of the U.S. Corbett received her B.S. in Biological Sciences and Sociology in 2008 from UMBC.
From 2006 to 2009, Corbett worked as a Biological Sciences Trainer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) alongside Dr. Barney Graham, Deputy Director of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center, more commonly known as the VRC. There she studied the pathogenesis of respiratory syncytial virus, an infant and childhood respiratory tract infection. Corbett began studying human antibody responses to the dengue fever virus in children in Sri Lanka in 2009 which became the subject of her 2017 dissertation, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While still working on her doctorate, Corbett spent April and May of 2014 working as a visiting scholar at Genetech Research Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Shortly after receiving her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, Corbett in October joined NIH as a postdoctoral fellow and an immunologist with the adjacent National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Dr. Corbett began her research at NIH working on the development of vaccines for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), two types of coronaviruses. Along with members of her team, Dr. Corbett identified the “spike protein” in COVID-19, when the virus emerged in December 2019. The claw-like shape of the protein, the spike, permeates healthy human skin, infecting the person with the virus.
Because of that work, Dr. Corbett was chosen to lead the team of scientists who partnered with the biotechnology company Moderna in development of a promising vaccine that uses a genetic code sequence to prompt the body’s immune system to react when the spike protein is detected, thus blocking the infection process. On March 3, 2020, Dr. Corbett shared her research with President Donald Trump during his NIH tour. Three days later, the president signed a bill authorizing an $8.3 billion dollar emergency coronavirus response, which included at least $3 billion for accelerated research on a vaccine and treatment.
Dr. Corbett has written numerous publications on antibodies and infections in scientific journals, such as the Journal of Infectious Diseases (2015), Nature (2016), and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). She lives in Seattle, Washington, where her team is based.