In March of 2020, the spread of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2, was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. While many of us were just beginning to learn about this novel coronavirus that would change the course of history, a team of scientists had already begun to work on a solution. They developed a vaccine that would not only prove to be the greatest tool in battling one of the worst pandemics since the 1918 Spanish Flu but would change vaccine science forever.
Discover Science: Kizzmekia Corbett on going where you are loved
Scientific lead in the development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine Kizzmekia Corbett discusses the early days of the vaccine's development, the importance of good mentorship, and how to find your place in science.
Kizzmekia Corbett was the scientific lead of the National Institutes of Health Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis team at the Vaccine Research Center. Corbett and her team designed the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, marking a turning point in the global pandemic. Since developing the vaccine that has saved countless lives around the world, Corbett has continued to make an impact as a public figure in the conversation around vaccine hesitancy and misinformation and currently is an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
On this episode of the Discover Science Podcast, Corbett spoke with Associate Dean of the College of Science Melanie Duckworth and microbiology and immunology 2022 graduate Christopher “COCO” Sanchez. Duckworth also serves as Director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program and Co-Director of Nevada Teach. The conversation covered many topics including the development of the new mRNA vaccine technology, Corbett’s path to science, the role mentorship has played in her life, and “going where you are loved.”
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Melanie Duckworth (00:02):
Okay. In March 2020, the spread of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. While many of us were only beginning to learn about a virus that we now know would change the course of history, a team of scientists at NIH led by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett had already begun work on a solution. Dr. Corbett's team developed a vaccine that would not only prove to be the greatest tool in battling one of the worst pandemics since the 1918 Spanish flu, but would change vaccine science forever.
Melanie Duckworth (00:47):
This is the Discover Science Podcast, a forum in which we speak with some of the world's leading scientist and researchers about the big issues impacting our lives. My name is Melanie Duckworth. I'm an associate Dean in the college of science, an associate professor in the department of psychology, director of the Women in Science and Engineering program and co-director of Nevada Teach.
Christopher Sanchez (01:11):
And my name is Christopher Sanchez, but I usually just go by Coco. I am a senior sitting, molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Nevada, Reno. I am honored to be co-hosting this episode of Discover Science with Dr. Duckworth today. We are thrilled that the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who was the scientific lead of the National Institutes of Health Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the Vaccine Research Center. Dr. Corbett and her team designed the COVID 19 mRNA vaccine marking a turning point in the global pandemic, since developing the vaccine that has saved countless lives around the world. Dr. Corbett has continued to make an impact as a public figure in the conversation around vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. And currently is an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Thank you for being here with us today, Dr. Corbett.
Kizzmekia Corbett (01:56):
Thank you so much for having me.
Christopher Sanchez (01:58):
Awesome. So, I think we'll start off this conversation with talking about the development of the mRNA vaccine. We know that the vaccine concept was designed by our team from viral sequence data released on January 10th, 2020, and rapidly deployed to Moderna for phase 1 clinical trials, just 66 days later. Can you tell us a little bit about those days?
Kizzmekia Corbett (02:18):
Those early days, man. You're making me pull into my history. I got an email from my boss actually on December 31st, 2019. And it was a report that showed that there was some virus, some illness that was happening in China and that it was probably a respiratory virus, it's very clear that the symptoms were respiratory. And he said, "Get ready for 2020." And I got back from my holiday break around January 6th. And we just started to plan from that point on, we didn't know if it was going to be a coronavirus, there were inklings that maybe it would be, but if it were, we knew that we had the knowledge and the tools to make vaccine development happen.
Kizzmekia Corbett (03:11):
And so on January the 10th, it was basically an operation to just go. Operation go. I don't remember much of those first initial days because we were just so busy. We were just all so busy. I think everyone was probably running on adrenaline. The key highlighted moments were moments where we started to realize even before that 66 days were over, at the point at which it went into the clinic that the vaccine was working well in mice. I do remember those moments, but otherwise, it feels like a blur.
Christopher Sanchez (03:57):
Just a bunch of different events coming at you?
Kizzmekia Corbett (04:02):
Sometimes I regret not having taken a journal, but there were just so many things that were going on.
Christopher Sanchez (04:09):
Big moments are so often like that, right?
Kizzmekia Corbett (04:10):
Yeah. So, many things were going on. I mean, it's a global pandemic. And at that point, the science was so premature. We didn't even really know how it spread. And so things were just moving really, really rapidly, so quickly. And I don't think we had the time, I tend to be an empath, so I shut out surroundings when it's time to focus because I can soak up the wrong energy and derail my entire plans, derail my emotions. I think what I did was I kind of just focused on what the goal was and I shut out all of the surroundings and that may have crippled what my memory is of the minor things that happened in that time.
Christopher Sanchez (05:08):
Right. But that big revealing moment of the results coming in with the efficacy, how was that?
Kizzmekia Corbett (05:15):
Christopher Sanchez (05:15):
Right. Just a bunch of emotions. I'm sure.
Kizzmekia Corbett (05:17):
Well, so I don't think anyone expected what? 94.1% is what the efficacy results revealed and the phase 3 trial, the preliminary phase 3 trial results and, I cried. I don't even know what the emotion was. The feeling is that there was light at the end of the tunnel
Kizzmekia Corbett (05:51):
And we'd worked so hard that if we had to double back and do it again, I actually don't know if I would even still be a scientist. I don't wish that much work on anyone, ever. And then it was a very stressful time. I just remember being so relieved that I burst into tears and I still was probably shedding tears for all the times prior to that I could not, because I could not cry because people were dying, as I said, I would've soaked up that energy.
Melanie Duckworth (06:27):
How did you, or when did you have a chance to really experience all of it?
Kizzmekia Corbett (06:38):
I don't think I have yet.
Christopher Sanchez (06:40):
It's been go, go, go, since that moment?
Kizzmekia Corbett (06:42):
I don't think I have yet. I may have, should have taken a break, still a little bit too late now. My lab’s already going to be starting. I have not sat with what happened, because how do you reflect on that? I don't know. How do you reflect on this career shifting moment? It's like history shifting moment, even too. The thing about reflecting on science is that you just continue to realize that there's so much more. If there is a downside to being a scientist, that might be it, that your brain is always like, "Well, what can we answer next?" Everyone's always like, "What are you doing next?" And it's like, dude.
Christopher Sanchez (07:21):
Just look at what I just did.
Kizzmekia Corbett (07:23):
Just go take the vaccine and give a break.
Christopher Sanchez (07:33):
Nice. Thanks for being here with us today on the Discover Science Podcast. Today, we're talking to virologists and professor Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.
Melanie Duckworth (07:39):
Something that I've appreciated is that you are quick to tell people, although this vaccines seem to be developed overnight, actually it's predicated upon years of research. So that's, a message that I think you wanted to get out there. Would you mind telling us a bit about those years of research? And if there were these milestones that let you know that you were at least moving the technology of the vaccine in the desired direction.
Kizzmekia Corbett (08:13):
The first thing that I should say about me being adamant about telling the history of the work, is because we got to this moment, in what was it? It's really around the first time I was on national TV, maybe CNN, April 2020. Where we were faced with a vaccine that we knew would probably come out in some form, right? General public didn't even know the basic, how does mRNA technology work? How long has mRNA technology been in development? What is a spike protein? People didn't even know that coronaviruses existed before this moment. And so it felt like I had it to step out of my role as a scientist and become the world's vaccine teacher and part of that, and one of the, I think I was telling someone earlier that how I'm interested in like, designing like a history of vaccinology course.
Kizzmekia Corbett (09:25):
And part of that is because I don't necessarily think that the general public understands how these technologies come about. And we as scientists, we sit in this bubble of privilege where we're publishing and in great journals and like cell, nature, science whoop-de-doo. But like no one is digesting that information and no one even knows that information is out there. And so it was a rude awakening for myself. And so the story is that I got to the NIH in 2014, at the time of which the MERS epidemic was still pretty much going on, I think in Saudi Arabia and there was an outbreak in Korea and et cetera.
Kizzmekia Corbett (10:22):
And it was very clear that coronavirus has had the potential to cause a pandemic. And so what do you do in that case? You do pandemic preparedness. It's a overarching term that basically says you study something so much that if a pandemic happens, you're good to go. And that's what we did, not just our team at the NIH, but so many other teams, right. And us in collaboration with other people as well. We just learned how to make a coronavirus vaccine, and what kinds of responses to look for that suggested that the vaccine would was good. And we took that knowledge and applied it to this new coronavirus that came up
Christopher Sanchez (11:08):
In talking about the MERS-CoV, and like the SARS-CoV-1, you refer to them as cousins or the same family member, right. This type of comparison can really show people that, because you had knowledge on these family members, that it was so much easier to develop a vaccine targeted towards another family member, right? SARS-CoV-2.
Kizzmekia Corbett (11:31):
Yeah. I like to use the analogy of a family tree because viruses are like that, right. Viruses have cousins, they have siblings, Omicron and then Omicron had a baby and it's BA.2.
Christopher Sanchez (11:46):
Kizzmekia Corbett (11:49):
And so the analogy works because if I know that something about your cousin, that is in your genetic code, if I say, everyone in that family has brown eyes. I can go to you without knowing anything else about you, but only that you're from that family that has brown eyes. And if the one thing that I need to understand in order to unlock the door is about your eyes, then I'm good to go. And so the one thing that we needed to understand for coronaviruses was about a spike protein. And they're fairly similar across the family, cousins, brothers, sisters, moms, dads of the coronaviruses. And so, because we learned a lot about the cousin virus MERS, we were able to apply that knowledge without knowing really much of anything else about the new virus, SARS-CoV-2.
Christopher Sanchez (12:58):
You're listening to the Discover Science Podcast. We're here today with healthcare activist, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.
Melanie Duckworth (13:04):
In discussing infectious disease. You have talked about vaccines as a healthcare equalizer, but you've also been quick to say that there are other factors that still contribute to health disparities, even when effective vaccines are present. Could you speak both to vaccines as the equalizer and to those other factors that still translate into health disparities?
Kizzmekia Corbett (13:34):
So, the reason why I say that vaccines, particularly for infectious diseases have the potential to be a great equalizer with health disparities is because they are cost effective. When done right the access is unlimited, everyone should have access to them and they're preventative, right? So, generally speaking the things that are barriers to healthcare, don't matter in the case of a vaccine, Black, White, Hispanic, et cetera, go get your vaccine and you'll be prevented against having this disease. So, that's why I say that. Now, of course, there are so many systems that have to be in place for that to be a reality. And also with that being said, not only do certain systems have to be in place, but the knowledge of the thing that makes for the uptake of the vaccine have to be in place too.
Kizzmekia Corbett (14:37):
And so you are oftentimes, at least what I'm finding with this COVID 19 pandemic met with the reality that there must be some like structural change, a top of the technology. And so that is access to getting the vaccine, equal knowledge about the vaccine, even on a very like neighborhood, to neighborhood basis, just even the type of vaccines that were available at some point were a little bit different. And so we have to do better to fix those structural underpinnings of a system that has basically fed health disparities for so long, in order for technologies that have the potential to help alleviate some of those health disparities to really flourish.
Christopher Sanchez (15:33):
My family is Latinx came from Mexico. And I feel like when I hear and talk to people in my community, there's a sense of pushback from getting the vaccine. And I believe it comes more from the idea that they fear the government because of what the government has done through immigration cycles and ICE and all these things, right. So, how is it possible to educate or better inform these minority groups that were affected by the government in such harsh ways to get access to these vaccines? And to really let them know that the vaccine is safe really is supported by scientists, it's not something that the government wants to push on them for any mal-intent.
Kizzmekia Corbett (16:17):
You know, I think that… I love my old job at the NIH, but it was in government. And so having the government as the central location, if you will, of the technologies, and then also the knowledge, and the access and all of these things is a little convoluted and that's outside looking in, right. So, I could always understand that view. And also, obviously the African American community is plagued with centuries of authoritative mistrust in systems working against them. So, I completely understand that point of view, the only way that we will move forward, is first of all the government's just going to have to, at some point, just apologize to people. At some point, someone has to just stand on the throne and say, we are so sorry. And it has to be genuine obviously, but because there's the trauma is there, but then also like the emotions, when someone hurts you or your family, there is so many emotions attached to it that can lead to you blocking blessings from that direction.
Kizzmekia Corbett (17:35):
I think that some of the ways that we've tried to start to regain some of the trust is by ensuring people that they are included throughout the process. So that, is like from the making of the vaccine. So, making sure that the teams are diverse, making sure that the testing of the vaccines and other therapeutics are tested in diverse populations, and then making sure that the outreach is not a one size fits all. I think that's probably one of the pieces that still takes a lot more work. Needing to basically meet people where they are, consistency too. You know, that's one of the things that I fear about us coming from under the pandemic phase of this virus, is that now we are maybe going to be smooth sailing for a bit and people might lose, we might lose touch with the populations that we were just starting to break through with. And it's going to be important to stay in contact and communication, even around, flu seasons in September, we need to be reminding those populations that don't necessarily trust vaccines to get vaccinated from the flu.
Christopher Sanchez (18:56):
Right. And it is so important to vaccinate as much as you can, because you have to reach that thresholds, herd immunity value. And if you're not hitting that, then the vaccine not individually loses its efficacy, but almost at like in a population scale, right?
Kizzmekia Corbett (19:11):
Absolutely, herd immunity is convoluted because generally speaking, we think about it as like broad population level, but really it is about your herd, within like your community, like the people that you're at the grocery store with and the people who you're at the nail salon and the bakery or whatever with, inside of your home even. And when you start to have whole communities of people who don't trust something, then you have these blank spots, really, makes them more vulnerable to the virus and the disease. And so that's what we saw, especially in the beginning, when the vaccine was starting to roll out, we saw the amount of the disease in one community over the other were starting to even be more exasperated. So, where it was 5X, more likely if you were Black to get in laying in the hospital, it became 10X and I'm making these numbers up.
Kizzmekia Corbett (20:05):
But you started to see that early on as the vaccine rolled out and that's goes back to the structural stuff, right? How imagine had all things been equal. And at that moment then you would've basically been able to like squash the pandemic in all different directions and many different communities. So, there is some work to be done as much as I can, I try to be working with as many community organizations as possible to lend a voice. So, sometimes it's not even about lending the voice, it's really about lending an ear to the community to see what the hot take are. And I know that right now, one of the things that is a hot take is that, if there is to be a widespread fourth dose, most people won't even think about it.
Kizzmekia Corbett (21:02):
And I'm not here to say whether or not that's right or wrong, but that's something that, although we are in this very happy place, unmasked and living our best life right now, if we do have another outbreak, how do we think about that? How do we break through those barriers of misunderstanding, I guess, of the speak or mistrust?
Melanie Duckworth (21:26):
I have to tell you that in listening to you, what I appreciate is that you keep honing in on the moment of complexity. So, I think sometimes we like to argue, "Well, everybody should be convinced by the data." These many people have had the vaccine, this is the level of hospitalizations now, it is dramatically lessened. These are the numbers of death, dramatically lessened, but there is the emotion of historical harm that comes into play.
Kizzmekia Corbett (21:54):
Listen, I say it all the time, everybody has their own data. So that's what anecdotes are. And I know that as scientists, we can't really necessarily publish anecdotes in nature or science, but every one person has their own data. So, a vaccine that's 90% effective or whatever the number will be. If 100% of your community is poor and has never seen anything good come from the government, then your 100 beats the 90, every single time. And that is your reality.
Melanie Duckworth (22:30):
And with different authorities too.
Kizzmekia Corbett (22:30):
Right. And so I think that I am reminded that scientific data is one thing, but personal anecdote is another. And I know that like on a debate stage, the scientific data will win every single time, but we are not on a debate stage and we're not in nature or science publications on a day to day basis. We are in the community and these are people's views, so.
Christopher Sanchez (23:02):
And I really feel like scientists have a really hard time communicating these ideas. I know you mentioned earlier, all this science literature is so hard to understand and read that it's really only approachable for other scientists, right. And the field of science communication is so important because if you are good at portraying, what the data really means in a way that the general public can understand, that's really where you get this 100% that you're talking about to lower that level down, right?
Kizzmekia Corbett (23:33):
Yeah. I think the one thing, science communication, it's a ever changing I think field even. What I once thought was science communication is not, maybe the most effective science communication. I don't feel like every scientist should be a science communicator, not to the general public like, that's fine. Like there are some scientists and it's not your thing, and I think that is okay. But in the places and the spaces and for the science also that, for which it matters, like if you are a COVID scientist, I almost feel like it's your duty and we have to be more intentional about it. And I don't even know what that intention looks like. I have people say, my gosh, I'm so grateful for your science communication. And I'm thinking I felt, I did a terrible job.
Melanie Duckworth (24:30):
Well, I can tell you, it's the fact that you hone in on complexity. You don't present things as simple.
Kizzmekia Corbett (24:39):
I hope so. I hope whatever it is that people got, they got it and it helped. But I know that even for me, that there's like a very long way to go with science communication. Hopefully, we continue to get better but.
Christopher Sanchez (24:54):
During the start of the pandemic, we had that really polarizing presidential election occurring. And it's so unfortunate to see what's happened, but it's voices like you that really work really hard and try to bring these two communities together. And the end with the end goal of vaccinating as many people as you can. It was awesome.
Kizzmekia Corbett (25:16):
And I'm not, I'm actually so, one thing that is like little known about me is that I'm not like super competitive. People might consider me a go getter, as far as like my career and all of those things are concerned. And so for me that allows me to remove, have a more of a worldview on where I should be taking my science. Because it's bigger than like my little cohort, and like my field and my publication, it's so much bigger than that. And I think that with finding a middle ground, I started to develop that in the early days when people were like, pinning the vaccines against each other. It's like, I honestly don't care. Take one. Like I had had J&J been offered to me first. That's what I would've taken as well.
Kizzmekia Corbett (26:18):
It's very hard for me to understand, forgetting about other people. I don't know. I have definitely been in rooms where it's like, "Well, the people who are going to get vaccinated are vaccinated already or infected." And okay, that's fine. But this moment is probably one of the more visible moment, like I don't think anyone will really see vaccine development happen this close up again in our lifetime, right. Think about all the medicines that you take. It's not like you watched the news at night and saw it be developed. You woke up and you're like, "A new allergy medication, man. Allegra look at that."
Christopher Sanchez (27:01):
The state of the art.
Melanie Duckworth (27:03):
I oppose that question. I'm like, "Well, did you know all about the development at some [inaudible 00:27:07] vaccine?"
Kizzmekia Corbett (27:07):
Yeah. And it's like...
Melanie Duckworth (27:07):
Kizzmekia Corbett (27:11):
I think that if we missed this moment to highlight the gaps in like how we aren't getting that extra 30 or 40% of people vaccinated, then it's really a lost moment. It's just a missed opportunity to me.
Melanie Duckworth (27:27):
Coco, I think you'd agree that one concern has to do with the global impact. We're talking about rates within our country, but we know in other countries the rates are so much lower and the access is so much less. How do we approach that at a governmental level?
Kizzmekia Corbett (27:52):
I don't know. That's why I'm not president.
Christopher Sanchez (27:53):
Kizzmekia Corbett (27:55):
I honestly have absolutely no idea, because the problems that we have with mistrust and miscommunication and people not trusting the government, all these things are times 10 in other places.
Melanie Duckworth (28:09):
Kizzmekia Corbett (28:10):
That's hard to break through when you can't even fix the problem in your own country, quite frankly. And so I don't know. I think we thought the answer was access. So, meaning we send them vaccine and they should just take it. I think one of the solutions will be actually having vaccines come from within, so let's just say, the US was not at the forefront of making vaccine for COVID. And we had to take the Chinese vaccine, how would we have trusted that?
Kizzmekia Corbett (28:55):
Like it's not from us, it didn't go through our regulatory agencies. I think that building up the capacity to manufacture, develop and manufacture vaccines in other places is going to really change how local populations, view vaccines. I feel like in the conversations around what we should do, we miss the fact that we may not have even done enough here. And so it could be belittling even I feel, like if you're elsewhere and you're looking at the US, while the US is sending you, boatloads of vaccine. What was it like two people were dying a minute or something ridiculous here at some point in like the world's richest country, we have to start at your own front door, a little bit more. And once we have a system here that is, I mean, this doesn't have to be squeaky clean, but you know, better, then we can say, "Okay, now we can teach."
Melanie Duckworth (29:56):
Yeah. And I love the idea of facilitating that development, that production of it within in a country.
Kizzmekia Corbett (30:00):
Melanie Duckworth (30:01):
Instead of just sending these, we could actually help them develop what they need to.
Kizzmekia Corbett (30:07):
And that goes beyond vaccine, that's like infrastructure, that's job creation. That's goes far beyond vaccine technology.
Melanie Duckworth (30:18):
Christopher Sanchez (30:23):
Thanks for being here with us today on the Discovery Science Podcast, where we're discussing how to find your place in science with Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.
Melanie Duckworth (30:30):
You've spoken often about the importance of good mentorship. What moments in your life have been most key, not only to who you are as a scientist, but to who you are as an example of the benefits of diversity and science, both science as a field of study and science as something that leads to clinical practice?
Kizzmekia Corbett (31:01):
I think the biggest example I'll just have one, was just my first interaction with science. I don't know if I would be a scientist if my first mentor was not Black. And I can't say that obviously, because like he was and here I am, but I do feel like the biggest motivation for my career was, people tell the stories of me saying I wanted this person's job or I wanted to be like this person, and that is true. But more over than that, those people actually believe that I could be, which is a whole different level of motivational. And so I think that's the most revolutionary part of my career is having been surrounded by people that, not only resemble me or are like me, but also who have really like believed in me. And because of that, they've kind of taken up a space for me. Which is really important. So, important.
Melanie Duckworth (32:20):
Could I follow that up with a question about what form did that take? So you say they believed in me. So, there was something that they're communicating.
Kizzmekia Corbett (32:30):
There are microaggressions, right? Which are negative. And then there are micro pleasantries which are positive and you don't necessarily recognize just like with microaggressions, you don't necessarily recognize how they might be tearing down your spirit until one day, you wake up and you're like, "My spirit is broken." But for micro pleasantries, you don't recognize it either until one day you wake up and you are now a Harvard professor. And you're like, these people really like gave me that, on a consistent basis, even if it was small and I can have so many examples, I serve on a board, that's a pretty famous board and I was going to my first board meeting.
Kizzmekia Corbett (33:11):
But I also was in a Bohemian themed wedding when I got back. And so I had to get my hair done before I went to the board meeting because I got off a plane and went straight to the wedding. And I said to my then boss, I said, do you think I can go to this board meeting with Bohemian box braids, which you're like very messy think Lisa Bonet style hair, which is beautiful but some people don't get it. If you get it, you get it.
Melanie Duckworth (33:41):
I get it.
Kizzmekia Corbett (33:43):
But yeah. And he said, I think you should go to that board meeting with whatever hairstyle you want, as long as you have the brain that you have. And it was like, "Okay." And it was fine, it worked out well. I'm still representing on the board. So, I think I worked out well, but I think those little small things, have been very motivational throughout my career. I don't know if you've ever seen the Smithsonian Exhibit, but there's a Smithsonian Exhibit and I have a picture on the top and then Dr. Graham's pictures below mine. And when we were making that, I was like, "No, I think Dr. Graham should be on top. He was the principal investigator." And he's like, "No." He's like I already... He's basically had a way about him that he just recognized that he already took up space, and so it was fine to give up a little bit of it.
Kizzmekia Corbett (34:47):
And I've come across a lot of people like that along my career, not even necessarily scientists either, but I've stumbled so to speak across mentors who have been very intentional about their direction, for me. And that's been very helpful.
Christopher Sanchez (35:05):
So, you really are following your motto of, "Go where you are and will be loved."
Kizzmekia Corbett (35:07):
Christopher Sanchez (35:08):
Kizzmekia Corbett (35:09):
All the time, every day.
Christopher Sanchez (35:11):
Amazing. I mean, it really does resonate with me, because I feel like for you to really feel comfortable in a space, you really do have to feel loved. For me it was a little different, difficult to find these places. I really had to find my identity and find who I was to really determine what kind of love I wanted to receive for me. How was that journey for you? Was it immediate? Did you know who you were? Did you know what spaces you wanted to be in? Did you naturally follow the places that gave love to you or?
Kizzmekia Corbett (35:47):
Yeah, I am a Black woman before I'm a scientist. And my being is that of a Black woman. And so I take up space as a Black woman more than I take up space as a scientist. And I think the turning point for me in the way that I approached my career, was that at first I wanted people to see the scientist. I wanted people to, I don't know, there's like this, I'm smart, I'm a scientist, and I want people to recognize me as like the scientist at the table, but I got to a point where I was okay with being recognized as the Black woman at the table, who is a scientist. Because that's how I was brought into the world, like that is actually the space that I take up at the table. Once I shifted the way that I cared for people to see me, I became a lot more clear about which spaces were loving versus which ones were not.
Kizzmekia Corbett (37:09):
And I realized that all the spaces that I needed to show up as a scientist first were just like, did not care for me. It didn't matter how good my science was, because I was the Black woman. And I think that once you have that recognition, ingrained in your spirit, it becomes a lot easier much more clarifying.
Christopher Sanchez (37:39):
Yeah. And I can definitely attest to that as well. When I first came to university, I have already come out as gay, like in high school, I'm proud of my Latin hood, but I think it took me a while for me to find a space on campus where I really felt a connection and felt like I belonged. Right. I started expressing more of my feminine side, I started doing the things that really made me happy. And within those spaces, I realized I'm so much happier here, I can really express how I feel in these spaces and it really has been awesome. And actually crazy story going into my research lab, my junior year, I had emailed this professor like every single semester since I started at UNR, his name is Dr. Bell. And I emailed him I'm super interested in your lab.
Christopher Sanchez (38:30):
He does HIV therapeutics. He makes a molecule called CADA and the molecule has biological activity towards a bunch of different proteins. And one of the initial ones that he targeted was CD4 for HIV. And I was like, "That is right up my alley." I came to the university to do HIV research, I want to really add to my community. And I emailed him for four semesters. Finally, junior year, I had taken enough classes where I was knowledgeable enough to actually apply my knowledge to the research lab. And on my first day, there was a little note on my fume hood. And it was left from the person before me, no idea who it was, but it said, I actually have it here, "Where you invest your love, you invest your life." And that has been my motto since my junior year. And it really has been so powerful for me.
Christopher Sanchez (39:21):
And when I was reading up about you and hearing your story and hearing about you, I saw that your motto to students now is, "Go where you are and will be loved." And it was just such a full circle for me. I came into research with this random note from this random person, and now I get a talk here with you who also gives us amazing advice of really, you need to go where you are and will be loved. And it's just such an awesome piece of advice. And I really have found myself so much happier in places that I do feel loved.
Kizzmekia Corbett (39:55):
It's so true. And what I heard from that was that basically, you realize that probably the reason why you were unhappy in certain spaces is because you were presenting as not your full self. It's so important. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion and community and belonging, but I think that the solution is just that everybody has to love everybody.
Christopher Sanchez (40:24):
Kizzmekia Corbett (40:24):
I like, I kind of like, just, I don't know. I know it's a very simple concept. And obviously we know the history of this country, like we're not there, right. But it's like, I don't know. I think that is, every time I'm in one of these like DEI workshops or navigating the space and it's like, why can't, the space should be navigating me.
Melanie Duckworth (40:52):
To go, be nice. You know, be nice.
Kizzmekia Corbett (40:57):
But yeah. So yeah, that is what I try to lean into. And I'm going to try very hard to make sure my lab is a very inclusive and like loving space. I want it to feel like family, you know like family, well everybody's family dynamics are different, I understand that. But the ideal picture of a family is that people are different, you don't have the same career, everybody doesn't bring the same thing to the table. But when you get to the table-
Melanie Duckworth (41:34):
There is a place for you.
Kizzmekia Corbett (41:37):
There's a place for you. And there is like as a unit and doesn't matter how the dynamics shift, but when something goes wrong with one person in the family, everybody feels it. I want my lab environment to have that same kind of love, because that's what it is it's like love, right.
Melanie Duckworth (41:56):
I like what you said initially, so if I am in a space and we have to admit that a lot of students didn't receive, what I think is critical advice in terms of go where you are loved. You know, a lot of students find themselves in spaces where they don't feel like they belong much less, that they are loved. And it's about establishing the part of your identity, right? What you said, I'm going to run with that. I could do all these other things, but establish your identity in how you're walking into any space. And then you can negotiate that space based on what it gives you and how it recognizes that identity. So, what do we do? What do we do as educators? What do we do as researchers to ensure that sense of belonging and that sense of connectedness in students who hold diverse identities of various type, and sometimes intersecting diverse identities, what do we do?
Kizzmekia Corbett (43:02):
Belonging is one that is a little bit trickier because I think that belonging shifts. Like I belong in this room, but like when I walk out into the library, my like my sense of being changes. So, that's very hard to building comfort around all spaces as a professor, or as a PI, or teacher, whatever is very difficult. And so I have not necessarily figured out ways of which is helpful there other than to use my space down, because really belonging has to change top down, as an inclusion can come bottom up. The vaccine research center where I was, I think they're building a new tower now, that's going to have lactation lounges. But the postdocs who were having babies were having to pump their breast milk in like the utility closet, it was like, what? You're the world's leading vaccine center. And so I was like, if I get pregnant, I'm just going to whip it out. I'm just going to have to take a stand.
Melanie Duckworth (44:18):
Figure it out. What do you want to do?
Kizzmekia Corbett (44:19):
Or like inclusive bathrooms is like everyone makes it to be like such a huge deal where really all you have to do is change the sign. Like you literally just have to change the sign. It's like-
Christopher Sanchez (44:32):
We are in both of those moments right now, right this minute.
Kizzmekia Corbett (44:36):
What is the big deal?
Christopher Sanchez (44:36):
And all these strong emotions opposing it for what? They don't really involve you, it's crazy.
Kizzmekia Corbett (44:41):
It's so weird. Just change the sign, and here we are. Maybe add a couple more like little small things inside to make sure that all things inside to make sure that all genders, have their necessities, but other than that change the sign.
Christopher Sanchez (44:56):
Kizzmekia Corbett (44:57):
And those kinds of things are leaned towards belonging and those kinds of things are more institutional. So, I did get warnings about, being the Black woman and pulled into all these kinds of committees. And so I tend to speak to the people on the committees about the thing, rather than sit on the committees, I actually feel like maybe that might have a little bit more power to it because I strongly say you will not use me for the committee, but then also using the very strong, powerful, oftentimes White voices to get the point across. So, smart.
Christopher Sanchez (45:43):
Thank you so much for talking with us today, Dr. Corbett. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know you and hearing more about your work and life. And thank you to all of you for listening to this episode of the Discovery Science Podcast. We hope to see you all again, next time.