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Kizzmekia Corbett spent her life preparing for this moment.
The Washington Post
By Darryl Fears
May 6, 2020 at 1:57 p.m. CDT
Halfway through the school year, Myrtis Bradsher found herself paying close
attention to a little girl called Kizzy. She always looked sharp, with ribbons knotted
to her ponytails and socks that matched every outfit. But it was the way she rushed
to help other fourth-graders with classwork that really stood out. “She had so much
knowledge,” the teacher recalled. “She knew something about everything.”
In 25 years at Oak Lane Elementary School in rural Hurdle Mills, N.C., Bradsher
had not seen a child like her. Bradsher was one of a few black teachers, and Kizzy
was a rare black student. At a parent-teacher conference, Bradsher pushed to give
the girl the advantages she felt she deserved. “Look,” she recalled saying to her
mother, Rhonda Brooks, “she’s so far above other children. We need to send her to
a class for exceptional students. I need you to say we have your permission.”
Bradsher’s recommendation put Kizzmekia Corbett on a path that ultimately led
her to the National Institutes of Health, where she is heading the government’s
search for a vaccine to end the coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than
1.2 million Americans, killed over 70,000 and devastated the economy.
Corbett, 34, is a long way from the tobacco and soybean farms that surround her
old elementary school. The advanced reading and math classes at Oak Lane
prepared her to become a high school math whiz. She was recommended for
Project SEED, a program for gifted minorities that allowed her to study chemistry
in labs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a 10th-grader. She
accepted a scholarship for minority science students that paid her way through the
University of Maryland Baltimore County and introduced her to NIH.
  • “I didn’t know Kizzy had gone that far until recently,” said Bradsher, now 72 and
    retired. “I figured she would, but I thought I probably would never hear about it.”
    But her high perch comes with more visibility and added scrutiny.
    On Feb. 27, Corbett posted a tweet that lamented the lack of diversity on President
    Trump’s coronavirus task force: “The task force is largely people (white men) he
    appointed to their positions as director of blah blah institute. They are indebted to
    serve him NOT the people.”
    And, as public health officials were reporting startling data that showed that the
    virus was disproportionately killing African Americans, Corbett vented on Twitter.
    “I tweet for the people who will die when doctors has to choose who gets the last
    ventilator and ultimately … who lives,” she wrote March 29. When someone
    responded that the virus “is a way to get rid of us,” Corbett replied: “Some have
    gone as far to call it genocide. I plead the fifth.”
    That triggered a response from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who read several of
    Corbett’s tweets aloud on his show and questioned her “commitment to scientific
    inquiry and rational thought.” He accused Corbett of “spouting lunatic conspiracy
    theories.”
    Two news organizations reported that the Department of Health and Human
    Services, which oversees the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
    where Corbett works, was investigating her tweets, but the agency said it had
    merely advised her of its social media guidelines.
    Since the controversy, Corbett has scaled back her use of social media. She
    stopped appearing on television, and the NIAID declined to make her available to
    The Washington Post for an interview, saying a deluge of requests threatened to
    interfere with her work.
    In an administration in which the president has had a tenuous relationship with his
    own scientists and experts, Corbett’s diminished visibility raised eyebrows. Her
    defenders say she was ridiculed for speaking the truth.
  • “I don’t think there’s anything she said that’s outlandish that goes against any type
    of code or standard,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and
    environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston.
    “What I’ve seen parade across that stage in the task force, other than the surgeon
    general, are all white people,” said Bullard, who is black. “To look and see these
    horrific disproportionate numbers of African Americans dying of coronavirus
    vindicates her tweet. She knew this virus would be like a heat-seeking missile that
    would target the most vulnerable.”
    African Americans make up 80 percent of people hospitalized for covid-19 in
    Georgia and, at one time, 72 percent of those who died of the disease in Chicago.
    Oliver Brooks, president of the National Medical Association, an organization of
    black doctors, said Corbett was right to point out the dearth of black doctors and
    researchers on the White House team. “I’m sorry — we should be represented on
    the task force,” he said. “She was just stating a fact.”
    Corbett’s tweet about the ventilators reflects a long and painful history of disparity
    in medical care and health outcomes experienced by African Americans, Brooks
    said. One of the most notorious episodes, which sowed deep distrust in the medical
    establishment, took place from 1932 to 1972, when the U.S. Public Health Service
    allowed syphilis to progress in black men without their knowledge, denying them
    treatment with penicillin.
    Long after that experiment ended, studies have shown white doctors spend more
    time with white patients than those who are black and prescribe different
    treatments. Life expectancy for African American men and women is shorter than
    for non-Hispanic whites, according to the federal government. And the death rate
    for African Americans is higher than for whites for a variety of ailments including
    stroke, heart disease, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia and diabetes.
    But Corbett’s tweet about genocide “concerns me a little bit,” Brooks said. “It’s
    subjective. I wouldn’t want to go there. I really don’t believe that. We’re dying at a
    higher rate but … that one just doesn’t fit.”
    Still, if Corbett’s vaccine work is successful, none of that really matters, Brooks
    said. “I don’t care if she told me she doesn’t like my mama,” he said. “If she finds
    the vaccine, I’ll buy her lunch. I’d say I don’t like your politics, but I sure like your
    vaccine.”
  • Corbett’s team completed the first clinical trial for the development of a vaccine in
    early March. Working at a furious pace at the Kaiser Permanente Washington
    Health Research Institute in Seattle, the team hopes to have a vaccine by the
    middle of next year.
    “She’s one of the hardest workers I know,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of
    UMBC, where Corbett studied as an undergraduate from 2004 to 2008. “People
    don’t know how hard she works. She is an extraordinary human being with a
    passion for science and helping people.”
    Corbett attended UMBC on a full ride as part of the Meyerhoff Scholarship
    Program, aimed at increasing diversity among future leaders in science,
    technology, engineering and related fields.
    The program’s director, Keith Harmon, recalled how Corbett walked into the room
    with 25 other high-achieving minority students. “I remember a very energetic,
    really outgoing young person, a people person,” Harmon said. “You could just see
    in their eyes what it meant to be in this space with people who look like them and
    have their same drive and goals. It’s kind of like they’ve found their people.”
    Corbett was intent on building on what she had learned each summer. Her first stop
    in 2005 was the Stony Brook School of Health Technology and Management in
    New York, where she studied under Gloria Viboud, an associate professor of
    medical molecular biology and program director of clinical laboratory sciences.
    Viboud noticed what Bradsher saw in Corbett years before as she quickly mastered
    unfamiliar genetic cloning techniques and devoured background literature.
    “She was always ahead of the other … students, completing an assigned poster and
    mock publication well before they were due,” Viboud wrote in a recommendation
    to the UNC doctoral program that she provided to The Post. “In 15 years of
    training undergraduate students, I must note that seeing a student as enthusiastic
    about research as Kizzy is extremely uncommon.”
    In 2006, Corbett spent a year at the University of Maryland School of Nursing,
    where Susan Dorsey, a professor and chair of the Department of Pain and
    Translational Symptom Science, ran a lab that allowed students to perfect their
    work with wet chemicals.
    “Some folks, it takes them a fair amount of time to learn the language and develop
    the skills,” Dorsey said. “She was very quick to thoroughly understand every
  • single step, which for an undergraduate student is fairly remarkable. Every student
    realized … she would definitely be a superstar — sort of not an if but when.”
    Four years later, she was in the doctorate program at UNC-Chapel Hill, spending
    her summers studying diseases such as dengue and coronavirus at what had
    become a familiar place, NIH.
    “She worked on that for four or five years and was a kind of a leader,” said Ralph
    Baric, who served on Corbett’s thesis committee at UNC. “She actually had most
    of the pioneering data.” Her interests put her in position to assume a leadership role
    if a pandemic were to strike.
    “It was a fortuitous move” that required “a little bit of luck, some foresight, and a
    need” for her type of expertise, Baric said.
    At NIH, Corbett was not shy about her ambition. During a summer internship
    there, Barney Graham, who ran the Vaccine Research Center, asked her what she
    wanted to achieve in life.
    “She said, ‘I want your job,’” Graham recalled, according to NBC News. “From
    the very beginning, she was really pretty bold in her aspirations.”
    When Bradsher learned Corbett was leading the team that could save lives and
    restart the economy, she swelled with pride.
    “I always thought she is going to do something one day,” she said. “She dotted i’s
    and crossed t’s. The best in my 30 years of teaching.”

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