A full-circle moment

Kizzmekia Corbett has played a critical role in the country's response to COVID-19, including helping develop a vaccine. But she first got her start at Carolina. The alumna virtually returned home this weekend to deliver the Class of 2021's Commencement address.

The Class of 2021 Commencement celebrations last May were a full-circle moment for Kizzmekia Corbett ’14 (Ph.D.) as she virtually returned home to the place her science career began and delivered the Commencement address that sent a new generation of Tar Heels out into the world.

“I don’t even think I ever would have imagined ever giving a Commencement speech,” she said. “You can’t beat being honored in this way by a place that trained you and raised you in many ways. I’m a scientist because I started being a scientist at UNC.”

Corbett delivered her remarks virtually at all five ceremonies alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci. The researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are two of the leading experts on COVID-19 research and national response strategies.

She earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the UNC School of Medicine in 2014. Her interest in rapid vaccine development led her to a postdoc fellowship at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, where she studied coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. That work laid the foundation for the speed with which her team developed a COVID-19 vaccine.

Corbett served as a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and is now an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Corbett’s team at the NIH partnered with Moderna to create a vaccine with an efficacy rate of nearly 95%, developing it on a much faster timeline than previous coronavirus vaccines. Fauci has previously explained that it took 20 months to get a SARS vaccine to clinical trials, but Corbett’s team accomplished that work for COVID-19 in just two months. The FDA cleared Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use in December 2020.

“I am a virologist because I studied virology at UNC, at one of the world’s most renowned viral immunology enterprises,” she said. “That level of training is what prepared me for this moment.”

Time magazine recently named Corbett to its list of the most influential people in the world, with Fauci writing the article summarizing her scientific contributions. Corbett also received an honor from her hometown of Hillsborough, where the town’s Board of Commissioners announced that Jan. 12 would be known as “Kizzmekia ‘Kizzy’ Corbett Day.”

Corbett attended the UNC School of Medicine from 2009 to 2014, but years earlier, when she was 16, she worked in Carolina’s Kenan Labs as part of the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED, which allows high school students to do research in university laboratories.

As a student in the medical school, Corbett’s mentor was Dr. Aravinda de Silva, a professor in the microbiology and immunology department, and Corbett’s goal, she said in February 2014, was vaccine development. Corbett studied the dengue virus, won an off-campus dissertation fellowship from the Graduate School and conducted research in Sri Lanka. She was also involved in several extracurricular activities, including serving as a representative on the UNC Student Congress, a delegate to the UNC System Association of Student Governments, a staff member in the Honor System Attorney General’s office and as a member of the science policy advisory group.