Kizzmekia Corbett was at her apartment in suburban Maryland, taking a break from work when I reached her by phone. She’s the viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health who’s leading a team of scientists in the groundbreaking work to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
She’s 34, a native of rural Hurdle Mills, N.C.
People.com called her a “superstar scientist.” Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, praised Corbett on Twitter, saying she was “leading the charge all the time to develop a vaccine for coronavirus. The world owes you and your team a debt of gratitude.”
And if that vaccine comes online as infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci predicted on “PBS NewsHour” last week — “by the end of the year, the beginning of the next year, in a safe way” — there will be lots more praise for Corbett and her team.
Aside from her technical skills, Corbett also has a talent for bridging cultural divides, finding her comfort zone in the most demanding work and social settings, and reconciling tensions that may arise as a woman of faith operating at the highest echelons of scientific achievement.
In 2014, she entered the NIH Vaccine Research Center to do postdoctoral work, operating in a world dominated by mostly White male scientists. She ended up leading a team of some of the best virus hunters in the world.
Of course, it took some progressive-minded scientists to bring Corbett into the fold and give her the opportunity to shine. Barney Graham, deputy director of the research center, was chief among them.
“He’s the kind of guy who is as invested in the success of others as he is his own,” Corbett said of Graham.
Still, she had to be ready — not just with the technical skills but with the internal fortitude. At a STEM webinar put on by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in May, Corbett gave students a bit of advice.
“People are going to try and tell you who you should be,” she said. “You have to remember who you are at all times.”
But how could they resist changing, I asked, if they are working in a structure that demands conformity in the name of “teamwork”?
“Honestly, I think it’s more difficult not being yourself,” she told me, “and quite frankly I don’t have the energy to try to be anybody else right now.”
Her apartment is doubling as a research office during the pandemic. Some members of the team she leads continue to work at the research center’s labs, wearing heavily protective gear.
Corbett hasn’t been able to see her family in North Carolina for several months. An aunt recently died. Ever the scientist, she said, “I’m working out the details on how to brief my family on proper social distancing at a Southern funeral, where people are all into each other’s faces, and always wanting to hug on my grandmother — which will definitely not be happening this time,” she said.
Friends often call her “Kizzy” but she prefers Kizzmekia.
“My mother took the ‘Kizz’ from Kizzy in ‘Roots,’ ” Corbett said, referring to the 1977 television miniseries based on the Alex Haley novel. “Then she added ‘mekia’ as an expression of her own creativity.”
The character in the Roots saga is aptly summed up on the History.com website: “Kizzy maintains her family pride and warrior spirit. She is trained to be a warrior by her father, remembering every story about Africa that her father ever told her.”
Corbett’s father was an entrepreneur; her mother a school administrator. She has six siblings.
“I was raised in a household where our voices were allowed to be heard,” she recalled. “If we wanted to go out on a Friday night but our parents didn’t want us to go, because, say, our test scores, we could make the case for why we should still be allowed to go out. The result was that we all learned how to speak up and speak frankly about our feelings.”
She’d been studying coronaviruses for more than six years before the pandemic took hold.
I noticed that in some of Corbett’s tweets, she included a meme of a green virus next to a blue heart. Did she have fond feelings for the thing she was trying to find a way to kill?
“I wouldn’t say I want to kill it,” Corbett said. “But I will say I’m passionate about studying it and want to prevent it from replicating and infecting. We call it neutralizing.”
Kizzmekia, creative warrior with a scientific mind.
Corbett had taken a break earlier that Sunday morning to watch a televised church service. A pastor in Dallas lyricized a gospel of social justice to a rap beat while wearing a protective mask.
For an hour or so, Corbett was immersed in a spiritual realm where mountains could be moved with the faith of a mustard seed. Afterward, she ventured back into her kitchen to prepare a meal. Then she returned to the microscopic world of covid-19, where only the scientific method could get her through the mountains of data that she had to analyze.
It sounded disorienting, even conflicting — the two worlds of faith and reason.
To Corbett, it all made perfect sense.
“Science tells us how the world works, but it can’t tell us why,” she paused. “That’s a rap lyric, but it’s true. To know the whys, you have to look above.”
“My religion tells me why I should want to help people, make the world a better place,” she said. “Science shows me how to study the coronavirus and do the work that one day, hopefully, will prevent people from dying of covid-19.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.