Corbett declined to comment on the president’s relationship with science. But that day at the NIH, she said, Trump listened and asked smart questions.
From loving Jesus to making jokes
Along with all that scientific devotion, Corbett remains connected to other parts of life, capable of talking about science anywhere from “the trap house to the White House,” she said in an interview with Black Enterprise magazine. It is one of the many blogs, podcasts, social media platforms and various news outlets with largely black audiences that have devoted time to Corbett’s scientific work and background.
In the days before strict social distancing measures took hold, Corbett told her Twitter followers that she got an “emergency weave” and had her eyebrows sculpted. She’s since joked about having to put on a real shirt to hop on a work videoconference call.
Corbett is a scientist who loves Jesus, hates mercenary operations falsely claiming they have produced a coronavirus shield from household spices and worries about how seriously people — especially at churches on Easter — take social distancing recommendations.
In a rare moment of levity since clinical trials of her team’s possible vaccine began, Corbett joked that rappers Young Jeezy and DaBaby will be asked to perform should she ever win a Nobel Prize.
“She’s brilliant and doing this complicated work and yet, somehow, is also this person who manages to remember everybody’s birthday,” Ward said. “She’s really great at bringing together groups of people with different skills and understanding the value and contributions of each of them in ways that really maximizes scientific impact.”
‘Critical thought is just how I roll’
Corbett was born in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, a town of less than 4,000 people about 30 minutes south of the Virginia border. Everyone thinks their baby is special, especially their first baby, said her mother, Rhonda Brooks.
“Kizzie was always like a little detective,” Brooks said. “My sweet little, opinionated detective.”
Brooks also recalls when Corbett’s third grade teacher, a black woman, told her and her husband, Corbett’s stepfather, that they should do everything possible to make sure their daughter was put on the most demanding academic track — something the district rarely considered for black children. They should push, the teacher said.
Eventually, the family moved 20 minutes south to Hillsborough, where Brooks raised her math whiz daughter just like her six other birth, step and foster kids.
When it was time for college, Corbett had multiple offers, including from a college known as a Southern party school and another from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she was accepted to the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and offered a full scholarship.
“It was like, do I go for the fun or do I go for the funds?” she said. “I chose Meyerhoff because of the money, the network and the program. Critical thought is just how I roll.”
In terms of the coronavirus alone, Meyerhoff Scholars is also the program that produced Olubukola Abiona, a scientist preparing for graduate studies working under Corbett at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center; Jerome Adams, surgeon general of the United States and part of the White House’s coronavirus task force; and Darian Cash, a senior scientist at Moderna, a biotech firm and part of the scientific group working with Corbett. All three are black.
“That is not and cannot be a coincidence,” said Keith Harmon, director of the Meyerhoff Scholars program, who was one of Corbett’s advisers in college. The program has helped to make the school the predominantly white institution producing the nation’s largest number of African Americans who earn medical and doctoral degrees.
“When I think about Kizzy, I’m not at all surprised she’s one of the scientists on the edge of a vaccine,” Harmon said. “Not one bit. What I am reminded of is that there is such ability, untapped, unrecognized and un-nurtured among students, all our students, particularly among our underrepresented minority students. And if we accept that as normal, you really have to wonder what serious challenges we leave unsolved.”
Long workdays and coping strategies
The work itself is exhilarating and hard. Right now, it also demands seven-day workweeks and getting three to four hours of sleep each night. Information is constantly arriving at all hours. Decisions need to be made. There are so many calls, emails and requests for data, for samples, for tests that measure how well the virus has been blocked that Corbett jokes she needs someone just to read her email.
Yet she manages it all — while also trying to digest side helpings of disrespect.
In meetings and emails or on conference calls at least a few times every day, Corbett said, some scientists around the world double-check her work or ideas with Graham or direct questions to him — even though Graham makes it consistently clear that Corbett is the scientific lead and the ultimate expert. Corbett said they thank Graham when she answers their questions or provides data, samples and tests.
On Twitter, someone recently suggested that she should “go back to McDonalds where she belongs.”
Corbett has a few coping strategies. She has a boss who believes in her, so she’s not afraid to ask questions, seek direction or try new approaches. She’s so organized that she’s known as “the spreadsheet queen” who plots out everything from clinical trials to her best friends’ children’s birthdays.
She tries to engage fully with the issue before her. Corbett makes time to check in with her three nieces and nephews almost every day. She leans on family and friends, especially her two grandmothers, for whom “Jesus is like a bff,” she said. And she extracts confidence, scientific and social information from doing the work.
“At some point, you have to decide how much to care,” Corbett said. “You understand that your work will have to be mighty so that it can do your speaking.”
CORRECTION (April 12, 2020, 9:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a scientist working for Kizzmekia Corbett. She is Olubukola Abiona, not Olubukula Ablona.