Meet Nita Patel and Kizzmekia Corbett, the women at forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development

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Nita Patel is trying to help end the pandemic. She’s one of the lead vaccine scientists at Novavax, a Maryland biotech company in the final trials of its COVID-19 vaccine. Her team isn’t just led by a woman, it’s almost all women. 

“They communicate with each other. They get along very well. I never seen them stress out,” she said of how the female team works together. 

Patel isn’t alone. Women are leading the effort at Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Oxford/AstraZeneca. At the National Institutes of Health, Kizzmekia Corbett helped design the Moderna vaccine. 

“I was told I was one of the first people to open a vial of the vaccine,” Corbett said. 

Biden
President Joe Biden speaks as Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health looks on during a visit to the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the NIH, Thursday, February 11, 2021, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Evan Vucci / AP


Patel has a theory as to why women are at the forefront: “We have a power inside us. We are very goal oriented, very persistent in achieving that goal.” 

She said there are numerous reasons why science is a good field for women. “There is no boundary. It’s unlimited space. It’s a lot more fun than people can think.” 

Before the pandemic, the number of women in science and engineering was rising, up 36% over the past decade. But a new study says women in the field aren’t immune to the pressures of the pandemic. The crisis is negatively affecting their “productivity, boundary setting … and mental well-being.” 

“The stress and the work-life balance that woman really faced a lot in this pandemic, and that made some woman to leave the work,” Patel said. 

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Dr. Nita Patel, director of antibody discovery and vaccine development, returns a box of potential coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccines to a fridge at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 20, 2020. 

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images


But Patel hopes there is a silver lining to the pandemic: A new generation inspired to get into science. 

“Women often don’t recognize, you have incredible strength inside you. It just need the right moment to come out,” she said. “I think in science, you can do this.” 

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