Vaccine researcher Kizzmekia Corbett wins top honor for federal service

Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett
Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett

Kizzmekia Corbett of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been named “Federal Employee of the Year” along with her colleague Barney Graham for conducting groundbreaking research while working at the National Institute of Health’s Vaccine Research Center that led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Corbett and Graham are among 13 winners of the 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medals, which honor excellence in the federal workforce. The “Sammies,” known as the “Oscars” of government service, are awarded by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. An October 28, 2021 announcement on the Partnership’s website outlined Graham’s and Corbett’s accomplishments.

In early 2020, while working at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, Corbett and Graham designed the structure for a vaccine that would form the backbone of many COVID-19 vaccines in use today, including the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax vaccines. They produced their design in record time. On a Saturday morning in early January 2020, Chinese scientists shared the gene sequence of the COVID-19 virus online. By the end of the weekend, Graham and Corbett, building on years of foundational work, used the genetic information to design the basic structure for the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.

“Their names will be in the history books,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden in the announcement from the Partnership. “All the (COVID-19) vaccines that are doing really well are totally dependent on their work.”

Graham, who was deputy director of the NIH Vaccine Research Center, retired in August 2021. Corbett, who led the coronavirus research team in Graham’s Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, joined Harvard Chan School in June 2021 as an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases.