The lead scientist who is researching a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine tells STEM students to stay focused, have a true career support team and to let their own good work be a voice to critics.
Viral immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett is the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccine Program at the Vaccine Research Center. The center is part of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, a subsidiary of National Institutes of Health. Corbett’s team studies coronaviruses. Her work in particular, began with the MERS outbreak and now the coronavirus pandemic.
“In pandemic preparedness, our job as vaccinologists, enviro-immunologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, is to plan ahead of time, so that we had a vaccine ready to go, in case there was a pandemic like there is now,” Corbett said. “So, what you are witnessing when you hear things about our vaccine, which is being developed in collaboration with Moderna, a biotechnical company, is a response effort towards getting a vaccine into general population.”
During the May 11 webinar, “STEM Excellence at the Forefront of Combatting COVID-19,” Corbett talked about her work as a scientist and answered questions from students in the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
She said the type of work she does requires scientific tests and failures, and it is something you must accept as part of scientific research.
“One of the most grounding things in science is that science is … that 90 percent of the things that you just do are going to fail. Experiments are going to fail, or you’ll have to repeat them; manuscripts will be rejected; people sometimes don’t pass their PhD quals the first time or, all of these things – there is this huge bubble of failure around you, so the least you can do is have someone in your corner who can tell you, ‘you failed, but at least you did it the right way,’” Corbett said.
That was her first bit of advice. Remembering “who you are” was her second.
“People are going to try and tell you who you should be,” Corbett said, “You have to remember who you are at all times.
Corbett earned her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an undergraduate double major, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and in Sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. That meant wet lab research and experience getting out into the community. Corbett found her love of chemistry, science and research during student internships that exposed her to the types of jobs available in science technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I became a scientist, I like to say, when I was 16 years old. I was lucky enough to do an internship at the University of North Carolina,” Corbett said. “Our parents were adamant that if we had jobs in the summer, that they much be educational, and so, for whatever reason, I chose to get a job in a laboratory. It was a program called Project SEED.”
Project SEED, Summer Experiences for The Economically Disadvantaged, is a paid summer internship for high school students by the American Chemical Society that allows them to participate in research at academic, industry and government labs across the U.S. (including Saint Louis University). This year, ACS will host a four-week, virtual summer camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Project SEED was directed by military guy who was very much into discipline and he did not play about history. We read all about the Tuskegee Experiment, did presentations, and so the historical context around fear in our community, and other communities, is something that is real and should not be taken lightly,” she said.
As a college undergraduate, Corbett was a Meyerhoff Scholar at UMBC, a program started by Freeman Hrabowski III and sustained by benefactors Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. It started in 1988 to get African American men into scientific research and evolved to include women and persons of various backgrounds who want to advance in STEM careers. “I cannot overstate how proud my colleagues and I are of UMBC alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett,” Hrabowski said in the April 2020 issue of The Business Monthly. “She is doing this life-saving work; she’s also changing the face of science. She is a dedicated mentor who actively inspires more young women, particularly women of color, to pursue science and medicine.”
The webinar was facilitated by Iris Wagstaff, STEM project director for the AAAS. Corbett gave students tips on finding out what interests them, the mutual benefit of a strong mentorship, staying on task for career goals and education; and letting their work silence any critics.
Corbett told students it is very important to use their time to explore career fields and what interests them. “You don’t have to really limit the types of things you are interested in … all of these things kind of come together in one way or another, because this is how interdisciplinary the world is becoming,” Corbett said. “You don’t necessarily have to study health disparities or have to do really community specific things, but if it’s your passion and your purpose, it will always come back to you.”
She also said find out who is doing the niche research you are interested in. For her, it was coronaviruses. Corbett said exploration should go beyond Google.
“Find out who are the people doing the very niche kind of stuff that you are doing,” Corbett said. “Find those people, contact those people and ask them how they melded all of it together. And you’ll find that it really was jelling little pieces of information together for the good and really specializing one thing.”
As they explore, Corbett advised students to widen their options geographically, to take on a world view sooner.
She said while it is not easy to get a doctorate in a STEM field for anyone, it is helpful to have a support system that includes mentors and supportive people throughout the entire trajectory of your career.
“From a professional development standpoint, find the two or three people who really see the scientist in you before they see most other things,” Corbett said. Her mentors see her as a black woman and who see and believe that she is a scientist who is capable of being a scientist, just as anyone else. “Once you recognize who those people are… I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they just don’t talk good to me, but they talk good about me to everyone else.”
She describes her mentors as her career committee, and committee members change over time in different stages of growth and career development. “You have to be able to be honest, firstly, with yourself about what you want out of a mentor,” Corbett said, adding that the interaction of mentoring should be of mutual beneficial relationship. “If you can’t really determine what you can offer a mentor, then perhaps that actually means that they can’t really offer as much as you thought,” Corbett said.
Corbett, a North Carolina native, said the things she would tell her younger self would be importance of reading books, like “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table (she posts her favorite books on Pinterest); saving money, saying, “There is always a way to live below your means, and getting into a habit of saving,” and honing presentation and writing skills as early as possible.
Knowing yourself, knowing your work, having trusted mentors and supportive people in your life, being transparent, and giving back with passion and purpose was Corbett’s message. When asked, Corbett also addressed the potential for backlash when speaking too loudly or too passionately about the community to which you feel indebted.
“Like my parents say to me… your voice sometimes is the only thing that you have. Every single thing else, people can take away. As long as you learn a way of being tactful, and understand that your work speaks for you too,” Corbett said. “People are going to know what type of impact you make just by making sure that your work is good and that you stand out in the way that you address the issues that you are interested in addressing.”
When asked about responding to haters on Twitter or other social media platforms, Corbett took exception to calling them haters.
“Some people are never going to be satisfied, and so that’s why you’re going to have to satisfy yourself. I think that criticism is something that – as hard as it is to take sometimes, it is something that we should all heed to, no matter from whom it comes. Of course, everyone does not have your best interests at heart.” Corbett said her parents reminded her that when her scholarships were announced in high school, people were booing.
“People are going to hate what they can’t compete with, period,” Corbett said.” Just let your work speak for itself and keep it moving. That’s all you can do.”