Meet the 'Outstanding' 34-Year-Old Scientist Leading the Charge on Coronavirus Vaccine Trials

Kizzmekia Corbett works seven-day weeks gets just three to four hours of sleep each night

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Photo: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett/Wikimedia

As coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, a group of scientists led by Kizzmekia Corbett is working around the clock toward developing a life-saving vaccine.

Corbett, 34, is a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where she and her team have already begun first-stage clinical trials of a vaccine to fight against COVID-19, according to The New York Times.

The trials began in Seattle in March, and according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, it happened in “record speed.” It took about two months, a much faster turnaround than the 20 months it took get a SARS vaccine to trial in 2003, NBC News reported.

If successful, the vaccine could reportedly be ready for patients by early to mid-2021.

“There was, and is, already a fair amount of pressure. A lot of people are banking on us or feel that we have a product that could, at least, be part of the answer this world needs,” Corbett told NBC News. “And, well, whew, just saying that out loud is not easy.”

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The superstar scientist got her start with a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she majored in biology and sociology, according to NBC News.

She went on to earn a doctorate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2014, and later joined the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center as a postdoctoral fellow that same year.

“[She’s] a really quite outstanding, hard-working scientist,” UNC professor Ralph Baric, who is part of Corbett’s vaccine development team, told NBC News. “Fate has put her in a position to make a huge difference in human health, and it has made a good choice.”

Corbett, who was born in a small town in North Carolina, has been working seven-day weeks, and getting just three to four hours of sleep each night, according to the outlet.

“At some point, you have to decide how much to care,” she said. “You understand that your work will have to be mighty so that it can do your speaking.”

In an interview with Black Enterprise, she said of herself, “I am Christian. I’m black. I am Southern, I’m an empath. I’m feisty, sassy, and fashionable.”

“I would say that my role as a scientist is really about my passion and purpose for the world and for giving back to the world,” she told the outlet.

Meanwhile, her mom Rhonda Brooks told NBC News that Corbett was curious even from a young age, “always like a little detective.”

“She’s brilliant and doing this complicated work and yet, somehow, is also this person who manages to remember everybody’s birthday. 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,” Andrew Ward, a Scripps Research professor who is part of Corbett’s team, told the outlet.

Corbett’s team’s COVID-19 clinical trials are the first of their kind. According to NBC, the team will have to put the vaccine through three different trials to prove its safety and effectiveness before it can hit doctor’s offices.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.

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