A Dream Deferred | HBCU Conference 2024

Saving Lives and Transforming Academic Spaces: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire Inspires the Next Generation of African Americans in Science

For the immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire, it wasn’t enough to help invent the technology behind lifesaving vaccines. During the covid-19 pandemic, she became one of the country’s most prominent public health advocates by following her conviction that science is only valuable when it reaches people in need.

“I have become extremely intentional about making sure that if I’m doing the science, I’m speaking about the science,” she explained from the plenary stage at A Dream Deferred, College Board’s annual conference to support and celebrate Black educators and students.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire with Steve Bumbaugh at the A Dream Deferred plenary stage

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire with Steve Bumbaugh, senior vice president of college, career, and digital access at College Board

Dr. Corbett-Helaire became an academic superstar after her research on coronavirus immune response proved vital to the rapid development of covid vaccines. She studied biological sciences and sociology as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and went on to earn a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She now runs a laboratory at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

At A Dream Deferred, Corbett-Helaire spoke about the joy of being an inspiration to younger Black scholars and also the burden of building trust in minority communities with deep-rooted skepticism of the medical establishment. “Because that trust is gone, there’s no way to rebuild it unless we communicate,” she said. “I’m speaking about the science … I go to community centers, I go to health departments, I speak to children, I visit schools. I do all of these things that are a little bit different from what’s typical of a scientist, because we have to.”

Learning to embrace her status as a high-profile Black scientist—someone with deep expertise in vaccines and added credibility with a vaccine-skeptical population—came down to a sense of spiritual calling:

We talk about purpose a lot, whether it be in the church or in academic institutions ... I had to step back and just say, ‘Who else?’

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire, Assistant Professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Doing that kind of public outreach has often meant pushing back against the more insular focus of academic institutions. Corbett-Helaire offered a harsh critique of an academic tenure process that doesn’t prioritize public service, forcing scholars and researchers to make difficult tradeoffs between career advancement and meaningful work beyond campus.

“Why are we thinking about institutes within the brick walls … when our science and our reach is supposed to go beyond that?” she asked, pointing out that Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health sits in a Black neighborhood but has little connection to it. “There are so many things about how we have built silos and walls that absolutely and unfortunately do not benefit Black people.”

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire (close up) sitting with Steve Bumbaugh at A Dream Deferred

She has made very intentional decisions throughout her career to stay true to her background and show the next generation of students that you don’t have to give up identity in order to succeed. “Right now, I have hip-hop lyrics on the walls of my corner office at Harvard. This is who I am, this is what I bring.”

She told a story about returning from a friend’s wedding, still sporting bright acrylic nails. A summer intern in a neighboring lab, a young woman from an HBCU, complimented her stylish nails and struck up a conversation for the first time. It led to deeper conversations about work and scholarship—the kind of mentoring relationship that’s crucial to advancement in academia.

Keeping those cultural markers prominent—playing Jeezy in the lab, wearing braids to PhD interviews, as Corbett-Helaire recalled—is a way of showing that Black people and Black culture absolutely belong in academic spaces. “We need to be ourselves and allow the institutions to shape around who we are,” she said.