“Congratulations! You did it!” Kizzmekia Corbett ’14 (Ph.D.) told the members of the Class of 2021 in a recorded speech this past weekend. “You did it boldly! You did it fearlessly! You did it intelligently! And the prize of it all is that you did it in a pandemic.”
Corbett and Dr. Anthony Fauci, two of the biggest names in COVID-19 research and national response strategies, teamed up to deliver Carolina’s Spring Commencement address.
Because of the pandemic, Carolina hosted smaller graduation ceremonies over three days, May 14-16. Traditionally, Carolina hosts one large ceremony for all graduates on Mother’s Day. The smaller ceremonies allowed the University to recognize graduates in person in a safe way. At each of the ceremonies, graduates heard recorded speeches from the two prominent COVID-19 experts.
“We are honored to have Dr. Anthony Fauci and Carolina alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett deliver the Commencement address at our ceremonies,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said when the speakers were announced in March. “Over this past year, these two medical leaders have worked tirelessly to serve our country and keep us safe. Drs. Fauci and Corbett embody our University’s mission of teaching, research and service. Their commitment to saving lives through discovery and innovation will inspire our graduates as they enter the next chapter of their lives.”
‘Shaping this new normal’
Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor and leader of the country’s response to the pandemic, encouraged Carolina’s newest graduates to become leaders and public servants, regardless of what career path they choose.
“You are going to play an important role in shaping this new normal,” he said. “You cannot do it alone, but it cannot be done without you and with your leadership.”
Serving as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director since 1984, Fauci oversees research focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating established and emerging infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, malaria and Ebola. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his scientific and global health accomplishments, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Beyond his own research on infectious diseases and the human immune response, Fauci has advised seven presidents — from Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden — on global health matters, including COVID-19.
‘Carolina will always be home.’
A proud Tar Heel and Hillsborough, North Carolina, native, Corbett spoke of the importance of home, “a word that most certainly takes on a different meaning after the past year.”
Corbett thanked Chancellor Guskiewicz for welcoming her back home. Many in the audience were preparing to return home, she said, while others were bound for graduate school or to start jobs. “For some, the vaccinated ones of course, you will take on a much-needed vacation.”
It was a fitting remark from the immunologist, who has been at the forefront of vaccine development as a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health.
Corbett earned her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the UNC School of Medicine in 2014. Her interest in rapid vaccine development led her to a postdoc fellowship at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, where she studied coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. That work laid the foundation for the speed with which her team developed a COVID-19 vaccine. Corbett is now a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.