President's Message

Jessica Kronstadt
WLALA President 2020-2021

April 2021

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a research fellow at the National Institute of Health who played a crucial role in creating Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine said, “Many of the things that you do in life should have some level of concern about somebody else.  Even if it’s just that you have to pick one person.  I would hope that everybody would have a concern for just the world, I think that it will make the entire world a better place.”  While we are starting to see some light shine through over a year of darkness, the recent attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community across the nation is a constant reminder that we have a responsibility to stand up as allies in speaking out against anti-Asian hate and racism in all forms.  We stand with WLALA members and members of our Sister Bars and particularly acknowledge our sister members of the Asian Pacific American Women Lawyers Alliance (APAWLA) in this fight.

As Spring approaches, we have seen light in the following ways:

  1. Former first lady Michelle Obama and soccer star Mia Hamm have been chosen for the National Women’s Hall of Fame as part of a Class of 2021. Ms. Hamm, who inspired this year’s theme of “Lead Like a Girl,” will be the first member of the United States National Women’s Soccer Team to enter the Hall.
  2. On April 3, WLALA Past President Selma Moidel Smith turned 102 years old.
  3. United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.
  4. On March 30, President Biden announced his intent to nominate 10 individuals to serve as Federal Circuit and District Court judges, and one individual to serve as a Superior Court Judge for the District of Columbia.Included in this group are three African American women chosen for Circuit Court vacancies as well as candidates who, if confirmed, would be the first Muslim American federal judge in United States history, the first AAPI woman to ever serve on the United States District Court for the District of the District of Columbia, and the first woman of color ever to serve as a federal judge for the District of Maryland.[1]

Marie Curie, STEM superhero, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman in history to win it twice, and the only human ever to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences famously said, “Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”  Have you heard of Edward Jenner, who pioneered the concept of modern vaccines?  Or Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine was a turning point in the fight against this debilitating disease?  If you know something about global health, you have probably heard of these vaccine pioneers.  Let’s talk about the women who also helped lay the foundations for modern immunization.

  1. Dr. Anna Wessels Williams (1863-1954):Dr. Williams’ isolation of a strain of diphtheria in 1894 was used to develop what later became a diphtheria vaccine. She was also the first woman to be elected chair of the laboratory section of the American Public Health Association.Now, diphtheria is completely preventable, and children around the world are protected from it through the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine.


2. Drs. Pearl Kendrick (1890-1980) & Grace Eldering (1900-1988):Drs. Eldering and Kendrick researched pertussis (whooping cough), tested their vaccine first on themselves, and then ran a successful clinical trial. As a result, in the 1940s, the first vaccine against whooping cough was introduced in America. Following the development of the pertussis vaccine, Drs. Eldering and Kendrick combined that vaccine with two other vaccines (diphtheria and tetanus) into a single shot – the DTP vaccine.


3. Dr. Margaret Pittman (1901-1995):Among her many achievements, Dr. Pittman is researched Haemophilus influenzae bacterium – the bacterium which some have argued caused influenza. She identified six types of Heamophilus influenzae, labeling them “a” to “f”. Type b (Hib) is the most harmful, causing meningitis and other serious infections. Her work led to the development of vaccines that protect against Hib. She was also the first woman to lead a National Institutes of Health Laboratory in the United States.


4. Dr. Isabel Morgan (1911-1996):Throughout the 1940s, Dr. Morgan worked with a team of virologists at Johns Hopkins University and advanced the understanding of polio viruses. She and her team were the first to prove that an inactive or “killed” virus could produce immunity, overturning the previous belief that only live viruses could do so.Her work fed directly into the development of Jonas Salk’s vaccine against polio in 1955. She is also the only woman on the 17-person polio vaccine “wall of fame.”


5. Dr. Dorothy Horstmann (1911-2001):Dr. Horstmann was an epidemiologist and virologist who showed that poliovirus reaches the brain through the blood. Her discovery enabled the development of a vaccine. She also became the first woman to be appointed a professor at Yale University’s School of Medicine.


6. Dr. Anne Szarewski (1959-2014):In the 1990s, Dr. Szarewski and her colleagues showed that human papillomavirus (HPV) was linked to cervical cancer. It was a breakthrough that, over the ten years that followed, allowed a vaccine to be developed to prevent HPV, and with it, the majority of cervical cancers. Those vaccines are now becoming more available around the world, offering up the possibility that cervical cancer could be eliminated.


7. Dr. Rachel Schneerson (1932-):Dr. Schneerson and her colleagues created the first vaccine against Hib. It was the first “conjugate” vaccine, a type of vaccine which combines a weak antigen (a foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body) with a strong antigen as a carrier so that the immune system has a stronger response to the weak antigen.This innovative design allowed for the development of vaccines that safely protected children.Hib protection is now available as part of the 5-in-1 vaccine in all the world’s 73 poorest countries. The availability of the Hib vaccine has been estimated to save 7 million lives.

8. Dr. Ruth Bishop (1933-):In 1973, Dr. Bishop led a team of researchers that discovered rotavirus, a major cause of severe diarrhea in children around the world. The discovery, which Dr. Bishop attributed to a “mixture of calculated research and serendipity,” has had an enormous impact.The identification of an infectious cause of deadly diarrhea started the successful 30-year hunt for a vaccine against it. Today, the vaccines are reaching children in lower income countries.

While the early days of vaccine science were dominated by male researchers, women are now on the frontlines in the quest to find vaccines capable of ending the global COVID pandemic.  Meet some of them:

  1. Dr. Kathrin Jansen:After migrating from Germany to the United States, Dr. Jansen pursued her research on a yeast-based HPV vaccine and had developed a pneumococcal vaccine.In January 2020, Dr. Jansen – the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer – was leading an unprecedented effort involving a team of more than 700 researchers to create a COVID-19 vaccine in months.Typically, a vaccine like this would take ten to fifteen years to create.She also coordinated the research process on her approach to the COVID -19 vaccine with Dr. Katalin Karikó.

  2. Dr. Katalin Karikó:A Hungarian biochemist, Dr. Karikó has pioneered the use of mRNA, a molecule that decodes human DNA into the proteins from which our bodies are constructed, to develop vaccines.Dr. Karikó, spent 16 years in the laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was demoted and told that she was not “faculty quality.”In 2005, she and a colleague – immunologist Drew Weissman – discovered how to make mRNA technology work.In 2013, Dr. Karikó joined BioNTech, the pharmaceutical firm that partnered with Pfizer to make the first COVID vaccine from mRNA.She is now the senior Vice President of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals.She played an extremely important role in developing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with her expertise in mRNA and has received praise for her valuable contribution to developing a COVID-19 vaccine.In response to the praise, Dr. Karikó said, “It’s not important that anyone know my name as long as I know that I contributed, it makes me feel good.”

  3. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett:Dr. Corbett is a viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH).She is currently the leading scientist on VRC’s Coronavirus Team, which provides research and development of vaccines for a myriad of novel coronavirus vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.She is the part of a team that worked with Moderna for two COVID-19 vaccines and she played a pivotal role in developing a COVID -19 vaccine in record time.Dr. Corbett’s work involved fabricating a protein that, in her words, “tricks the human immune system into blocking the infection and disease caused by the coronavirus.”Dr. Corbett insists that she is “happy and humbled” by the role she played over the past year but wishes the pace at which she and her team developed coronavirus vaccines could have been quicker so that she could have saved more lives.

  4. Dr. Nita Patel:Dr. Patel is the leading molecular scientist of Novavax, an American vaccine development company that is developing a COVID-19 vaccine.Dr. Patel is part of an all-female vaccine team.The vaccine on which Dr. Patel and her team are working is still in its final trial stages. Dr. Patel is from Sojitra, a farming village in India. She grew up in poverty, after her father nearly died from tuberculosis. Although he survived, Dr. Patel’s father could not work again, which motivated Dr. Patel to become a doctor so she could find a cure for tuberculosis. Dr. Patel’s quest to battle tuberculosis and other infectious diseases has led her to lead the race of developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

  5. Dr. Lisa A. Jackson:Dr. Jackson is a senior investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.Dr. Jackson led the world’s first COVID-19 clinical vaccine trial, overseeing the first shot of the Moderna vaccine in Seattle on March 16, 2020.She later helped with the final stage of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine trials.

  6. Anika Chebrolu: Ms. Chebrolu is a 14-year-old Indian American, who started a science project in her bedroom when she was in eighth grade.She sought a treatment for the influenza virus, which meant studying and researching the pandemics that affected the world throughout history, until she started actually living through one.As the COVID-19 outbreak spread around the world, Ms. Chebrolu – with the help of her mentor – changed gears and began to target the virus that causes COVID-19.She identified a lead molecule that potentially may inhibit the novel coronavirus.In October 2020, Ms. Chebrolu won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

  7. Dr. Özlem Türeci:Co-founder of the biotechnology company BioNTech, Dr. Türeci is a scientist, a physician, an entrepreneur and a leader in the global health sector. In 2020, her company developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19, which came as a much-needed moment of hope in a year of unprecedented crisis.More than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTech, and more than half of them are women.

Dr. Mae Jemison, a chemist, biologist, linguist, accomplished dancer, and humanitarian, was the first African American woman astronaut in space.  She has made reaching space possible for women and men of all races and backgrounds around the world.  Dr. Jemison said, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity.  It’s your place in the world; it’s your life.  Go on and do all you can with it and make it the life you want to live.”  To the doctors, scientists and researchers discussed here and who are currently working to end the global pandemic:  Thank You.  Because of your devotion and your concern for others, we are able to Lead Like a Girl.


[1] I encourage you to read about these impressive individuals here.