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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

‘He Listened…He Cared’

In Lab Tour, Biden Connects with Scientists

Graham and President Biden bump elbows.

Dr. Barney Graham and President Biden bump elbows.

Photo: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

When President Biden visited the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH on Feb. 11, VRC deputy director Dr. Barney Graham and research fellow Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett described various aspects of vaccine development science.

“I showed a 3C model of the whole virus to show how the spike molecule was on the virus surface,” Graham recounted. “I then showed a 10 million X-enlarged 3D model of the spike protein. I had other models of the prefusion and postfusion forms of RSV F and some of our new nanoparticle designs for influenza, but didn’t have time for those.”

Corbett talked about how her group decided on the protein sequence for making the spike protein in different forms for assay development, cryoelectron microscopy, probes for antibody discovery and vaccine. 

“[We] designed the vaccine insert sequence [over a weekend],” Corbett recalled.

In response to the science blitz and research briefing, Biden inquired about how the investigators themselves were coping.

“He was interested in our personal experience and our families’ experience of going through this pandemic response over the last year,” Graham noted. “He listened and he cared. At the end of the lab tour I mentioned that my wife (Dr. Cynthia Turner-Graham) and grandson (D.J.) both asked me to say hello from them. [The President] pulled out his cell phone and asked for my wife’s number, then called her and proceeded to have a 5- to 10-minute call with her while everyone else waited.” 

Corbett points to computer display as POTUS looks on.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett talks vaccine science with POTUS.

Photo: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

This is the second meeting with a U.S. President in less than a year for Graham and Corbett. They met with President Trump on Mar. 3, 2020. Graham’s work has placed him in this position several times over the last couple of decades.

“I had the opportunity to meet with President Obama in December 2014, when he came to thank us for our work on Ebola during the West African outbreak,” Graham recalled. He also met with President Bush who visited in 2003 to learn about VRC work post-9/11. 

What stood out for Corbett was “POTUS ad hoc calling Dr. Graham’s wife for casual conversation and gifting us with the POTUS challenge coin.”

“I never imagined meeting an active president as a research fellow,” she said.

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