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Vaccine Science from the Father of the COVID-19 Shot

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Scientists and doctors explain vaccine response and answer audience questions

Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center, spoke to his fellow Kansans on March 18, 2021, about the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine technology he helped develop and the importance of vaccinating the majority of our population so we can end this pandemic together. 

Dr. Graham, who grew up in Olathe and Paola, Kansas, is a world-renowned immunologist and virologist whose team developed a technological approach that is the foundation of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. His innovation allowed research into the rapid creation of microscopically precise vaccines that can be specially tuned to combat emerging viruses that can cause a pandemic. 

In a special arrangement with K-State Research and Extension and Kansas State University’s Lafene Health Center, the March 18 virtual meeting featured Dr. Graham talking about the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines and how they were developed in record time. 

After his talk, Dr. Graham was joined by a panel of local Kansas healthcare providers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle:
• Dr. Marci Nielsen, chief advisor for COVID-19 coordination for the State of Kansas
• Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician from Fredonia, Kansas 

Their discussion was moderated by Dr. Kyle Goerl, medical director at Lafene. The panel discussion included a time for audience-submitted questions to help increase understanding about how and why the vaccines work, safety or other concerns that attendees had.

What: Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Development: Why and How
When: 7-8:30 p.m., Thursday, March 18


barney graham professional headshot

Barney S. Graham, M.D., Ph.D.
Deputy Director, Vaccine Research Center, NIAID, NIH
Chief, Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory        

Dr. Graham is Deputy Director of the NIAID Vaccine Research Center. He has a bachelor’s degree from Rice University, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine, and a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he also completed internal medicine residency, chief residencies, and a fellowship in infectious diseases.

He was a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt with a joint appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology before joining the VRC in 2000 as a founding member. He is a recipient of the Robert M. Chanock Award for lifetime contributions to RSV research and the Dr. Charles Mérieux Award for Achievement in Vaccinology and Immunology from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

His primary interests are vaccine development for viral diseases, viral pathogenesis, mechanisms of immunity, and pandemic preparedness. He directs basic laboratory research, contributes to the pipeline of new VRC vaccines, and provides oversight of candidate VRC vaccines and antibodies in advanced development including those for HIV, Ebola, and chikungunya. His laboratory explores the structural basis for antibody-mediated viral neutralization, investigates basic mechanisms by which T cells affect viral clearance and immunopathology, and has developed novel vaccines for RSV, influenza, Zika, and coronaviruses including the first COVID-19 vaccine and monoclonal antibody to enter clinical testing and that have now achieved emergency use authorization.


marci nielsen professional headshot

Marci Nielsen, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Chief Advisor for Covid-19 Coordination for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly

Dr. Nielsen is a seasoned health policy executive with broad experience in federal, state, association and academic leadership. She was appointed as chief advisor for COVID-19 coordination for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Jan. 20, 2021.

She recently directed the Government Employees Health Association's policy and strategy efforts and previously served as CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based national primary care association; served as vice chancellor of public affairs and in faculty positions at the University of Kansas Medical Center; directed the State of Kansas' health care agency (Medicaid, CHIP, State Employee Health Plan); lobbied health issues for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.; served as staff for U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska; participated in numerous medical and public-health, grant-funded research projects; served in the U.S. Army Reserve, and volunteered in the Peace Corps (Thailand).

Her current volunteer work includes co-founding and serving as the chief health officer for the CVKey Project, and serving on the boards of the National Academy for State Health Policy (Center for Health Policy Development), the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation. She is also a member of the stakeholder council for the American Board of Medical Specialties. She previously served on the board of directors for the American Board of Family Medicine Board, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, and TransforMED. She has also served in advisory roles for multiple national and state health care and public health organizations and co-edited the policy section of the peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal Family, Systems, and Health. 


jennifer bacani mckenney professional headshot

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, M.D.
Practicing family physician, Fredonia, Kansas
Health officer, Fredonia and Wilson County

Dr. McKenney has owned and managed an independent practice alongside her father for the last 10 years. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas and attended medical school at the University of Kansas Medical Center and then at the School of Medicine in Wichita. She completed her family medicine residency at Via Christi in Wichita in 2009.

She served as the resident board member on the national board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. She currently serves as the vice president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians and will step into the presidency of the organization in 2022. She is also on the board of the Kansas Medical Society.

Dr. McKenney provides outpatient, inpatient, emergency department, surgical and endoscopic services to her community. She is the vice chief of staff at Fredonia Regional Hospital, a 25-bed, critical-access hospital. She is heavily involved in quality improvement through the Aledade Kansas Accountable Care Organization and is involved in primary care practice-based research.

She is the Wilson County health officer as well as the Fredonia city health officer. She is the director of the local home health agency and hospice agency.


kyle goerl professional headshot

Kyle Goerl, M.D, CAQSM
Medical Director at Lafene Health Center on the campus of Kansas State University
Team physician for K-State athletics 

Dr. Goerl is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. He received his medical degree from the KU School of Medicine-Wichita, and he did both his residency and primary care sports medicine fellowship training at the University of Utah. He currently serves as the team physician chair of the Big 12 Conference Medical Aspects of Sport Advisory Committee and serves as the Big 12 representative to both the A5 and NCAA COVID-19 advisory groups.

Dr. Goerl has presented and published on a multitude of musculoskeletal and sports-medicine issues at the local, regional and national level. He is the former director for SportsMedToday, a patient education website produced by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the current chair of the Program Planning Committee for their 2022 annual conference. He also maintains an active membership with the America College of Sports Medicine. He sits on the Athletic Training Council for the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and is a part of the Sports Medicine Coalition for the American College Health Association.