The TIME magazine 2021 Hero of the Year shared her journey of scientific innovation with St. Kate's.
Early February marked the start of not only Black History Month, but St. Catherine University’s new Women of Color Leadership Series, which brings high-profile leaders to share their stories of the learning and inspirational opportunities that paved their paths to leadership. Part of Katie Leadership Impact, the series connects St. Kate’s students with leaders who represent the brightest hopes for meaningful change in our world.
“According to recent research, women in S&P 500 companies make up only 6% of CEOs and 27% of senior level managers, and women of color represent only 5% of all senior level managers,” said Benson Whitney, JD, dean of the School of Business. "Thanks to the generosity of the Manitou Fund, our goal through Katie Leadership Impact is to make St. Catherine University and the School of Business an inclusive, cutting-edge center for developing young women leaders, especially from low-income, BIPOC, and other underrepresented groups.”
The series officially launched with a lecture from Kizzmekia S. Corbett, PhD, who led the National Institutes of Health team that helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine. She now serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Dr. Corbett's journey and insights are not only timely, considering her contributions to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Namibia Little, director of Katie Leadership Impact, “but a striking example of just how transformative and necessary leadership from women of color is."
“Equity equals opportunity”
Prior to her lecture, Dr. Corbett began her St. Kate’s visit where, arguably, her own remarkable journey started: a classroom.
“Talking about how I got to this point is important because it took someone to tell me as well,” she told a group of public health, chemistry, and other STEM students gathered in Mendel, the sciences hub on campus. Corbett was part of the first generation of children in her family to pursue a four-year college degree, a journey that started when the then-16-year-old began a summer job at Project SEED researching and experimenting in organic chemistry.
Her experience there was the pivotal early opportunity to learn what being a scientist entailed. “It was the first time I realized that for every fact in my science book, someone had to discover it,” said Dr. Corbett during her evening lecture at The O’Shaughnessy. “It was also the first time I realized that representation mattered. The person who shuttled me in from University of South Carolina Chapel Hill was getting a PhD in one of the most notable organic chemistry laboratories in the world, and she looked like me — and I knew from that moment on that I could be exactly who that person was. And so I decided that I was going to be a scientist.”
That representation has a vital ripple effect. Like Dr. Corbett found affirmation in the PhD candidate who drove the shuttle, St. Kate’s student Morgan Batiste-Simms ’22 — who delivered the introduction to the lecture — finds concrete inspiration in Dr. Corbett.
“As I watched the successes of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, I imagined myself in her shoes, and … I was able to stay there. I didn’t have to wonder, ‘What would this dream look like because of the color of my skin or my gender?’” said Batiste-Simms. “I watched my own roadmap come to fruition, [and] through Dr. Corbett’s story, my own dreams of becoming a great scientist and doctor are further solidified.”
“The future isn’t only about what it means for women to be in STEM, but really what it means for everyone. That women and girls continue to be given the space and opportunity in STEM fields to be exactly who they are destined to be — that can only be beneficial for everyone.”
Corbett’s early Project SEED experience helped her avoid what Taviare Hawkins, PhD, division chair for Math and Sciences at St. Kate’s, calls the “leaky pipeline.”
“There are many places along a girl’s path, from transitioning from sixth grade to middle school to 12th grade, where girls move from the front of the classroom to the back of the classroom. When these women get to college, in their co-ed classes, they don't even sit in the front of the classroom,” Dr. Hawkins said. “It’s tougher for the science majors, because the pressure to stay on-course is immense.”
After earning two bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and sociology in 2008 and her PhD in 2014, Dr. Corbett led a team at the National Institutes of Health in studying MERS-CoV, a virus circulating in the Middle East. “We knew that a virus in that family could potentially cause a pandemic, because SARS had circulated a decade before.”
It took three years to publish the team’s spike vaccine concept. In December 2019, a respiratory virus began circulating in China, and one month later, the COVID-19 virus sequence was released to researchers. Dr. Corbett and her team were able to fast-track the vaccine development process, and their research eventually led to the Moderna vaccine. To date, the COVID-19 vaccines have gone to 4 billion people worldwide and saved what is estimated to be millions of lives.
This remarkable impact is one amazing example of how, in the ongoing conversation about improving access and opportunity, the scope of the change possible is incredible — particularly in regard to the diversity of perspective and skills women and women of color bring to the table.
“The future isn’t only about what it means for women to be in STEM,” said Dr. Corbett, “but really what it means for everyone. That women and girls continue to be given the space and opportunity in STEM fields to be exactly who they are destined to be — that can only be beneficial for everyone."
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Photos By Rebecca Studios / Rebecca Slater ’10