Orange High School grad now designing vaccinations

Kizzmekia Corbett is Senior Research Fellow and Scientific Lead on the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health

With the recent daily concerns — and panic — over the Novel Coronavirus, it’s reassuring to know people like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, are tirelessly working to find ways to help.

Did we mention that Dr. Corbett is from Orange County? Or that she’s from Hillsborough? Did we mention that Dr. Corbett, whose full title is Senior Research Fellow and Scientific Lead on the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team is a graduate of Orange High School?

“I went to (A.L.) Stanback Middle School,” said Dr. Corbett, “and I graduated from Orange High School in 2004.”

It was in high school, at the age of 15, that Dr. Corbett’s love of science began to shape her future and career. She took part in a program called ProjectSEED, and spent the next two summers in labs.

“My first experience in that program was in an organic chemistry laboratory,” Dr. Corbett said. “I studied the different chemical sides of a drug, and how one side can be helpful and one side can be harmful. It was in the 10th grade that I fell in love with science. And the wonderment of learning something that nobody else in the world knows. It’s the same reason why I love my job now.”

Dr. Corbett has been with the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland since 2014. She said the general public only thinks about coronaviruses during times of epidemics and pandemics, but that there are hundreds of strains of them and they have been around for hundreds of years.

“They generally dwell in animal reservoirs,” she said. “Many people have discovered coronaviruses in, for example, bats. These are generally animal viruses, but there are now seven coronaviruses that are infectious to humans.”

Dr. Corbett explains that four of those coronaviruses are endemic, which means is they circulate seasonally among humans. Sort of like how flu circulates among humans. 

There are also coronaviruses that have been epidemic, such as MERS and SARS. New cases of the SARS virus have stopped showing up, but new cases of MERS are still being reported in humans in the Middle East, primarily in Saudi Arabia. 

“And then there’s this Novel coronavirus, which is the seventh,” Dr. Corbett said. “It hasn’t been qualified as endemic or epidemic now, but what we are witnessing is the onset of an epidemic class, maybe even, I guess you could say, pandemic potential for this virus.”

And this is where Dr. Corbett and her teammates in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the Vaccine Research Center step in.

“We, and our collaborators and co-inventors design vaccines for coronaviruses. At the vaccine research center, we then evaluate those vaccines in small animal models and then, as we are doing now, in a clinical trial.”

Dr. Corbett describes the vaccine-making process in great detail, using terms like “fight proteins” and “structure-guided vaccine design.” She talks about “Messenger RNAs” and “transferring mutations.” 

“That’s what we did for both MERS and SARS,” she said. “We rationally designed a fight protein and tested it for its ability to produce optimal antibody responses.”

Dr. Corbett does well to make a complicated process of solving a complex issue sound more simple than it really is. But she stresses there are very simple steps the general public can take to keep diseases, like the Novel coronavirus, from spreading and creating more panic.

“I want the general public to understand that the Chinese should not be stigmatized. It is important that we not stigmatize people who may be from areas where the virus starts. It could very well have been in the United States.

“People should also be diligent with washing your hands and coughing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow. These simple things prevent infections,” she said. “These are preventions we have iterated time and time again with all respiratory viruses. I also want the public to understand that we have your back. But it’s important that we don’t panic.”

Dr. Corbett said she is excited about the attention she and her cohorts are receiving with regard to the work they are doing. She understands she is an under-represented minority in the science field. But she is optimistic that it’s getting better.

“There’s kind of a general understanding that — and not just for science — diversity is key to productivity,” Dr. Corbett said. “In order to have diverse ideas you have to have a pool of diverse backgrounds. My background as a black woman from rural North Carolina might be different than other people who are in the field. I’ve been fortunate to be backed and supported by programs that entered into my career trajectory — scholarship programs that focused on under-represented minorities in science. 

“Science is changing in the way people have thought about scientists being introverted people who are just working in their corner of a lab,” she adds. “That kind of model is changing. It’s a very collaborative effort among labs, multiple labs, all over the world.”