Vaccine Heroes: Women in STEM*
The Covid-19 vaccination program in the United States has exceeded expectations. A record 4.1 million vaccinations were given in the U.S. on Saturday, April 3rd, and the daily average has been running around 3 million. It's been a full year of the pandemic here - and while a year is a long time with half a million lives lost- twelve months to an approved vaccine is a remarkable accomplishment. There are many scientists and doctors to thank for this milestone, but I'd like to focus on two women who are surely vaccine heroes, and a young female student who represents a hopeful future when there will be a cure.
*STEM= Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics
Kizzmekia Corbett has been at the forefront of coronavirus vaccine development since the beginning. She has been praised by Dr. Anthony Fauci as being a key part of the vaccine team. As far back as January 2020, when the first news broke about the virus in the Wuhan province, Corbett has been on the National Institute of Health (NIH) team that worked with Moderna on one of the two mRNA vaccines.
As both African-Americans and women are underrepresented in STEM careers, Corbett is exceptional in her educational background. When she was a younger student, she participated in Project SEED, a program for gifted minority students, and was able to study chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She would later return there to get her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. She interned at the NIH during the summer, where she would later play a key role in vaccine development.
Corbett made the news in March 2020 when she and other scientists spoke with President Donald Trump at the NIH. It was during the preliminary days of the pandemic.
"I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak," Corbett said. "I felt that it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes and essentially [who have] done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine."
"This person who looks like you has been working on this for several years and I also wanted it to be visible because I wanted people to understand that I stood by the work that I'd done for so long as well," she added.
Katalin (Kati) Kariko grew up in Hungary, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Szeged, then worked at the university’s Biological Research Center. When the money ran out in her research program in 1985, she and her family emigrated to the US where she obtained a position at the Temple University in Pennsylvania. She transferred to the University of Pennsylvania four years later, and still struggled for grants, moving from one lab to another.
“For her entire career, Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.” (Kolata New York Times 4/8/2021)
Kariko worked for years on mRNA, changing research partners along the way. In 2005, she and Dr. Drew Weissman published results in the journal Immunity, but their work went unnoticed. Finally, clinical trials of an mRNA flu vaccine began, and that sparked interest in vaccines for other diseases. Then when SARS-CoV-2 came along, the framework was already in place.
Ankia Chebrolu is not even out of school yet, but her research could lead to a cure for Covid-19. Fourteen years old, she won the 3M Young Scientist Award in October 2020 for her work to identify (using in-silico methodology) a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this," Anika said.
While we can, and should, celebrate the achievements of these women in STEM, there are still reasons to worry about the current gender gap. The International Science Council recently reported that women scientists have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially those at the beginning stages of their careers.
Two factors disproportionately affect women during this pandemic. The first, managing care for young children and elderly parents, usually falls to women professionals. Many schools are holding virtual classes and senior citizen activity centers have closed. This is compounded by domestic work - all added to the workweek. The second is the higher percentage of women who are working part-time, typically as adjunct professors. When enrollment declines, so does women’s income when those classes are cut.
"In this time of pandemic, when a health crisis combines with an economic crisis, the work of scientists is critical. The world stands to lose much unless all scientists are in a position to pursue their work in good conditions and also if a significant number of scientists drop out of their research careers."
The Standing Committee for Gender Equality in Science has a statement about the effects of the pandemic on women scientists and how to prevent losing at-risk professionals. You can read the statement here. If you work in research or academia, please forward the statement to those making hiring and tenure decisions to show support.
The "Covid-19 Pandemic" story isn't over yet; there will be more heroes and more memorable accomplishments. I'm hoping that the stories of Corbett, Kariko, and even Chebrolu will be docudramas by 2030 to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers.