Amidst the ongoing battle against COVID-19, women across the globe are empowering their communities, using technology, science, and political savvy to protect millions. Through their intelligence and empathy, these women strive to make the world a healthier, happier, and safer place! We cannot thank these women enough for their inspiring leadership skills and innovative discoveries, which gift us hope in a world ripe with uncertainty.
1. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand)
Jacinda Ardern grew up in rural New Zealand in a Mormon family, beginning her career as an advisor for Prime Minister Helen Clark after graduating from The University of Waikato. She joined New Zealand’s Labor Party at 17 and was elected to the House of Representatives at just 28. Currently, Ardern serves as prime minister of New Zealand, an office she won in 2017 after running as a member of the opposition party against a much more experienced politician. She currently boasts the title of New Zealand’s youngest female Prime Minister in history and was the second female head of government in the world to give birth while in office (the first was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto). In 2020, New Zealand reelected Ardern. She led the Labor Party to obtain an impressive 50% of the vote and over half the seats in the House of Representatives, a poltical triumph unmatched since 1951.
Despite being the country’s youngest leader in over 150 years, Ardern navigated the pandemic with grace and determination, fighting to maintain the physical and emotional security of New Zealand’s citizens. She worked closely with the country’s director-general of health to combat COVID-19 from a science-based lens and hosted Facebook live-sessions to solicit feedback from the public and access their wellbeing. Additionally, Ardern helped devise an Alert Level framework that keeps New Zealanders up to date on the spread of the virus and current risk levels, ensuring the health and safety of the country’s five-million inhabitants.
“It takes courage and strength to be empathetic, and I’m very proudly an empathetic and compassionate leader. I am trying to chart a different path, and that will attract criticism, but I can only be true to myself and the form of leadership I believe in.”
2. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett (United States)
As a young student in North Carolina, Kizzmekia Corbett participated in Project SEED, a program for gifted minority students that allowed her to study chemistry in the labs of UNC Chapel Hill. She later gained admittance to the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, where she received a full ride to The University of Maryland Baltimore County. Everyone in Dr. Corbett’s orbit knew she would go on to profoundly impact the world of science, with one mentor stating, “every student realized…she would definitely be a superstar — sort of not an if but when.” Sure enough, Kizzmekia went on to pursue a PhD in microbiology and immunology, interning with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and securing a fulltime position in 2014. She currently heads the NIH’s Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team, working to protect the public against viral outbreaks.
During the pandemic, Dr. Corbett’s team partnered with Moderna to produce a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine, working tirelessly throughout 2020 to ensure public security. Dr. Corbett helped design the vaccine in just two days, with her research and expertise playing a pivotal role in the development process. Notably, beyond her work in the lab, Dr. Corbett mobilized her twitter to educate the public about vaccine science and address misinformation. She gave particular emphasis to health disparities in the United States, illuminating disproportionate rates of infection among the Black community and calling for racial justice in medical treatment.
“From a vaccine development standpoint, I think my love of discovery in science melded with my empathetic nature for people. And having studied health disparities from a sociological standpoint in college, and at the same time being in a vaccine lab and seeing how the two really could benefit from one another, helped me to say, ‘Well, if I’m going to be asking questions, I might as well ask some questions that inform vaccine development so that I can really have a translatable way that can help people en masse.’”
-Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
3. Dr. Özlem Türeci (Germany)
Dr. Türeci was born in Germany to a family of Turkish immigrants from Istanbul. She specializes in immunology and cancer research, co-founding BioNTech in 2008 with the goal of manufacturing innovative immunotherapies. Currently, Dr. Türeci serves as President of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy in Germany and acts as Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, where she leads the fight against cancer and infectious diseases.
In her capacity as BioNTech’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Türeci headed “Project Lightspeed” during the pandemic, an initiative aimed at addressing COVID-19 through scientific research. She partnered with Pfizer Inc. to develop and distribute an mRNA-based vaccine that operates with over 95% efficiency. The first approved vaccination on the market, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine marked a crucial breakthrough in the pandemic and is helping to fortify millions against the virus.
“We are so distracted by the work that we don’t really celebrate or even are aware of having this status. When it comes to inspiring people, this is something we very much like to do. We are also lecturers and mentors of young scientists. And so inspiring is part of the job. If this is achieved with what we do then we are happy about that.”
-Dr. Özlem Türeci
4. Dr. Chen Wei (China)
One of China’s most highly respected immunologists, Dr. Chen Wei heads the Institute of Bioengineering at The Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing. She leverages her connections, empathy, and leadership skills to combat viral outbreaks, specializing in vaccine production and disaster response. During the SARS epidemic, she spent eight hours a day isolating the virus, developing an effective nasal spray that prevented close to 14,000 essential workers from falling ill. Similarly, in 2015, she traveled to Sierra Leone to help fight the Ebola virus, developing an innovative and effective vaccine that helped fortify the African continent against the disease.
Drawing on her experiences fighting SARS and Ebola, Dr. Chen Wei led the team who produced China’s first COVID-19 vaccine at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They developed the vaccine in just 50 days, creating a makeshift lab in early 2020 where they were able to test over 1,000 people per day and carefully research the virus. As research surrounding COVID evolves, Dr. Chen Wei is establishing a team of experts to help prevent future outbreaks and control biohazard responses in the future, helping to bridge the gap between military personnel and health workers by promoting long-term collaboration. The Chinese government recognized Dr. Chen Wei’s valiant contributions to the fight against COVID-19 by awarding her the national honorary title of “the People’s Hero”, solidifying her status as one of the nation’s most renowned scientists.
“If you are compassionate to others, you can make your world even more wonderful and meaningful.”
-Dr. Chen Wei
Thank you for reading! I hope these women inspired you as much as they inspire me and be on the lookout for part two of this series in the coming weeks!