University News

Leading COVID experts to deliver Carolina’s Spring Commencement address

Drs. Anthony Fauci and Kizzmekia Corbett have been pivotal in understanding and combatting the virus.

Split images of Kizzmekia Corbett and Dr. Anthony Fauci

Carolina’s spring graduation will feature two of the biggest names in COVID-19 research and national response strategies who will be, virtually, on the same stage in Kenan Stadium for multiple live commencement exercises honoring the Class of 2021 and a limited number of their invited guests.

Drs. Anthony Fauci and Kizzmekia Corbett ’14 (Ph.D.) will team up to deliver Carolina’s Spring Commencement address this May.

“We are honored to have Dr. Anthony Fauci and Carolina alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett deliver the Commencement address at our ceremonies this May,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said. “Over this past year, these two medical leaders have worked tirelessly to serve our country and keep us safe. Drs. Fauci and Corbett embody our University’s mission of teaching, research and service. Their commitment to saving lives through discovery and innovation will inspire our graduates as they enter the next chapter of their lives.”

Because of the pandemic, Carolina will host smaller graduation ceremonies over three days the weekend of May 14-16. Traditionally, Carolina hosts one large ceremony for all graduates on Mother’s Day. The smaller ceremonies will allow the University to recognize our graduates in person in a safe way.

Graduates will hear from the two prominent COVID-19 experts at each of the ceremonies.

Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, has led the country’s response to the pandemic. Serving as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director since 1984, he oversees research focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating established and emerging infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDs, respiratory infections, malaria and Ebola. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his scientific and global health accomplishments, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Beyond his own research on infectious diseases and the human immune response, Fauci has advised seven presidents — from Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden — on global health matters, including COVID-19.

As countries begin vaccination efforts, Fauci has advocated for global herd immunity. “As we allow this infection to exist to any degree in any part of the world, it will always be a threat,” he told NPR. “So, we’ve got to approach this the way we approach smallpox, the way we approach polio, and the way we approach measles and other devastating global outbreaks.”

While Fauci has been diligently advising the Biden administration and previously the Trump administration on public health measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, Corbett, an immunologist, has been at the forefront of vaccine development as a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

Corbett 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 is now a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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.

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.