From the President: Wonder Women

February 18, 2021

Sonya Smith

This issue of American Scientist appears during Women’s History Month. As I submit this letter near the end of December 2020, we have just elected the first female vice president of the United States. We will also soon benefit from the results of the work of two female scientists—we will have two vaccines for COVID-19 that are direct results of research conducted by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett and Dr. Katalin Karikó. This does not diminish the contributions of all those involved in the vaccine, but during Women’s History Month, I think the contributions of these women is something to be celebrated.

The story of both of these women is one of perseverance. Dr. Corbett was born in rural North Carolina and attended college on a Meyerhoff scholarship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research into virology resulted directly from summer internships at a variety of labs. Dr. Corbett’s scientific foundations benefited from the investment by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) into summer research programs for undergraduate and high school students. This training and her subsequent postbaccalaureate and postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) positioned her to participate on the team that developed the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Foundational to the Moderna vaccine is the work of Dr. Karikó. Her interest in messenger RNA (mRNA) began when she was working in Hungary in the field of vaccines. After immigrating to the United States, she continued to work on this novel approach to vaccine development, though it was believed at the time to provoke an inflammatory response and was not considered a promising approach. In fact, it has been reported that her promotion to professor at a prominent university was denied for this reason. Nevertheless, she persisted. She continued to conduct experiments, and later, with her collaborator Drew Weissman, she solved the problem with mRNA. Her mRNA research has now led to the development of the Pfizer vaccine and the foundations for the Moderna vaccine.

Here at Sigma Xi, we are committed to equity and inclusion in the scientific pursuit. We celebrate the national investment in the research enterprise, and we invest in research through our Grants in Aid of Research (GIAR) program. We will continue to showcase the contributions of all members of our scientific community, especially those who have been historically under-represented. Kudos to these great women scientists, and to all the women whose shoulders they stand upon.

The end of 2020 saw a prominent newspaper columnist criticizing Dr. Jill Biden’s right to be called “doctor” because she has a doctorate degree, but not an MD. Suffice it to say that the research behind the COVID-19 vaccines was conducted by two female PhDs. Thank you, Dr. Corbett and Dr. Karikó!

Sonya Smith 
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society 

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety