Product Launch Lead
Test Development and Integration, GeneDx
In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I would like to share the profile of a scientist who has inspired me recently. Someone that represents the value that women – women of color and women in STEM – contribute to society despite the innumerable challenges. And what better context to observe this than during a pandemic? Her name is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 35-year-old African American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody that were the first to enter clinical trials in the U.S. and now have authorization for emergency use.
Dr. Corbett is a viral immunologist and the scientific lead of the Vaccine Research Center’s (VRC) coronavirus team at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a research fellow at NIH, she has focused on coronavirus biology and vaccine development for the past six years. Those years of research led to the discovery that a stabilized version of a spike protein found on the surface of all coronaviruses can be a key target for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Dr. Corbett’s previous work involved using the spike proteins on SARS and MERS viruses to develop experimental vaccines. These vaccines never made it to market but when the current pandemic became a reality, Dr. Corbett’s team already had a method for developing vaccines that could help them fast-track production for the new coronavirus. She was part of the NIH team who helped solve the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
On January 14, 2020, Dr. Corbett’s team held a conference call to discuss the next steps with collaborators in labs across the country and sent off the sequence to Moderna. The rest of the story is still being written. Millions of people in the U.S. and across the world have been and will be vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. I am one of them. Dr. Corbett’s work will have a substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than 100 years.
We celebrate Women’s History Month to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of women throughout the years to our society and observe International Women’s Day “to uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality to mobilize all people to do their part.” This has never been more relevant than now, more than 12 months into a pandemic that has exposed gender fault lines in myriad ways. In normal times, women around the world already shouldered, in a disproportionate way, the next-to-invisible but overwhelming share of unpaid labor at home: things like cooking, cleaning, caring for kids or aging parents. With the pandemic, this burden on women has grown exponentially. In the words of Nahla Valji, senior gender adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations, “our formal economy is only possible because it’s subsidized by women’s unpaid work”. It is time for nations and societies, governments and private institutions, families and individuals, to realize that this status quo is unsustainable and toxic, and do their part.
With that in mind, I would like to close this personal piece by recognizing the enormous efforts and sacrifices that women, and especially mothers, are doing during this pandemic. I see them – they are my supervisor, directors, colleagues, team members and cleaning staff – going the extra mile, day after day, to balance work and family demands. Thank you – the world owes you.