A Letter of Thanks to Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the Scientific Lead of the NIH’s Coronavirus Vaccine Program

Photo: Kizzmekia Corbett; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers… thank you.

Dear Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett,

Without exaggeration, I can say that you have become one my biggest pandemic heroes.

Over the past year, COVID-19 plunged the world into a pandemic that had scientific and social consequences of unpredictable proportions. For a long time, I felt inundated with stories of death, trauma, and loss from every single angle. Especially in the Black community. I felt like every Black face I saw in the news was followed by a soul-shattering tragic tale. Black folks do not have an unlimited capacity to read about or live with trauma in our communities. Interacting with the news cycle felt so demoralizing. Until, I came across stories about you.

Suddenly, amidst debates over sanitizing groceries and trackers that minimized human lives to numbers in a COVID-19 death count, I learned about you and your work. A Black woman and viral immunologist working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help develop and design the vaccine in collaboration with Moderna. While many individuals worked on this feat, to have someone that looks like me and understands the unique circumstances of the community I come from felt particularly impactful.

Your specific work with creating the vaccine, which would offer the most impactful solution towards ending the COVID-19 pandemic, helped put into perspective that this pandemic would not last permanently. You quite literally existed as a solution-oriented glimmer of the fact that this devastation would at some point end. I can not fully describe how much hope and optimism that helped relay to me and many other Black people across the country as we continued to witness how this virus decimated so many in our community.

You understood that for this novel scientific innovation to make its most optimal impact, the most vulnerable people needed to trust it and use it.

I deeply admire that your work with the vaccine did not start and stop within the corridors of your NIH laboratory. You understood that for this novel scientific innovation to make its most optimal impact, the most vulnerable people needed to trust it and use it. You contributed so much to communication and advocacy about this vaccine to high-risk populations.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some Black people had justifiable skepticism towards the vaccine. You did not label us as “anti-science.” You did not dismiss us as medically mistrustful. You did not forget about us. You utilized a multi-modal approach to enlighten and educate people across the county to assuage their fears about this vaccine. You made twitter threads. You spoke with pastors. You headlined urban community forums. You found different (virtual) ways to meet people where they were to give them evidence to make their own vaccine decisions that would be the best case situation for their families and health.

In my personal opinion, representation only matters when individuals use their platforms and power to help elevate others in their community. It deeply inspires me how, despite all the prestige you received, you never deviated from making the Black community, and other underserved communities, a focal point of your scientific mission.

Over the past year, you have greatly inspired my professional and personal work. I am currently completing a master’s in a graduate science and health field. I also write about health (and how it often intersects with social justice). Your professional conduct has really shown me a model that I now emulate in my own professional life.

When I study or research information, I instinctively think about how I can translate that information one day to tangibly benefit my community, like how you did with vaccine science. When I write about health topics, particularly less-than-optimistic topics, I try to maintain a solutions-oriented mindset and approach, similar to how you focused on a vaccine solution in the midst of COVID-19 chaos. When I envision my future career, I want to blend scientific and health discovery and innovation with community advocacy and education. Like you. I want to make sure that any work I do can make it into my community. Like you.

I, along with many other young Black women in health and science fields, feel so blessed to have a high profile woman like you to look up to and model our careers on. It can feel so hard to work and study in spaces where so few people look like you or truly understand the context of the communities you live and come from. To have some one like you offer a blueprint on how to authentically navigate these spaces offers such an intangible gift. It helps make me imagine that a professionally fruitful and personally fulfilling career can be a reality.

Thank you so much for having such an inspirational life. When I think about my future, I hope to adopt many of the principles you seem to live by. I, too, hope that I can one day symbiotically make advancement in both the scientific and medical community like you have done with the COVID-19 vaccine development and advocacy.


Tiffany Onyejiaka

Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from best-selling author Layla Saad and Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin

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