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Sam Lai, PhD

Adjunct Assistant Professor Director, Pharmacoengineering Program Assistant Director, Academic Innovation Associate Professor

Sam Lai, Ph.D.

Professor, Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics

Department of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Microbiology & Immunology; Biophysics; Oral Biology (School of Dentistry)


(919) 966-3024
4213 Marsico Hall, 125 Mason Farm Road, , Chapel Hill, NC, 27599

Sam Lai, Ph.D., was born in Hong Kong and spent his childhood in both Hong Kong and Vancouver. After completing high school at Phillips Academy, Andover, he attended Cornell University and received his BS in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2003. He then undertook doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2007. Following a one-year postdoc, he became a research assistant professor at Johns Hopkins in fall 2008 before joining the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy in fall 2010 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 2016, and full professor in 2021.

Lai’s previous research focused on nanoparticle-based delivery of bioactive molecules to mucosal tissues. He helped pioneer the development of mucus-penetrating particle technology, a breakthrough that formed the basis of Kala Pharmaceuticals, launched in 2009.  Kala completed its IPO in 2017, and has two FDA-approved drugs based on the technology.  His prior inventions have also been licensed by Graybug Vision, which completed its IPO in 2020 and advanced the work into late stage clinical development.  Since moving to UNC, he has established a rigorous research program at the interface of engineering, immunology, biophysics and biomaterials. His lab has spun out a number of startups.  His pioneering work on muco-trapping antibodies led to the formation of Mucommune, LLC, a startup focused on harnessing antibody-mucin interactions for female reproductive health, and Inhalon Biopharma, a clinical stage startup focused on treating acute respiratory infections.  These two companies have received over $50M in federal contracts, awards and investments. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his research, including the NSF CAREER Award and the Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering.

Education, Certification and Licensure

  • 2003 – 2007: Ph.D. in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at John Hopkins University
  • 2000 – 2003: B.S. in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell University

Education, Entrepreneurship and Outreach

To promote entrepreneurship and innovation among graduate students, professional students and postdocs, in 2016 Lai launched the E(I) Lab program, an 8-month long experiential education program that bring together students from diverse disciplines across UNC to conceive, develop and test innovative solutions to unmet needs in healthcare. He stepped down as the director in 2020 after the program was moved to be housed under Innovate Carolina.

Lai has also collaborated with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to develop laboratory module and education curriculum for middle school students titled What’s Snot to Like [PDF]. The curriculum is part of the Morehead Mobile Labs program.

Lai also served as Faculty Director of the Young Innovators Program from 2018-2020.

Google Scholar

Lab Website

ORCID iD: 0000-0003-4721-528X

Current Projects

Lai’s current research interests span a diverse number of disciplines spanning immunology, engineering and drug delivery. Students in the lab come from disciplines ranging from Pharm Sci, BME, Microbiology & Immunology, Genetics Medicine, Applied Math and more. For more info, please see his lab website.

Note that the Lai Research Group is actively recruiting highly motivated members at all levels (postdoc, graduate students, undergraduates) from across all disciplines.

  • Engineering antibodies for mucosal applications, including infectious disease and contraception
  • Elucidation and methods to overcome polymer-specific immune responses
  • Gene vectors for immune cells engineering
  • Bispecific antibodies for tuning the tumor microenvironment
  • Gene therapy of the microbiome
  • Computational modeling and artificial intelligence

Honors and Awards

2013 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering
IBM Junior Faculty Development Award, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
2012 CAREER Award, National Science Foundation
2010 New Faculty Research Award, American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy
2008 2nd Place, AIChE Graduate Student Award (Bionanotechnology)
2008-2009 Croucher Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship
2005-2007 Predoctoral Fellowship, Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada
2003 Cornell Theory Center (IBM Computational Biology) Fellow
Alumni Research Scholar, Cornell University
2000-2003 John McMullen Dean’s Scholar, Cornell University


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