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Sam Lai

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

Sam Lai, Ph.D.

Director, Pharmacoengineering Program, Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics

Assistant Director, Academic Innovation, Eshelman Institute for Innovation

Associate Professor, Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics

Adjunct Assistant Professor, UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering


(919) 966-3024

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.

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 based on funding from a syndicate of leading VC firms.  Kala has since completed multiple successful Phase III clinical trials and filed a New Drug Application with the FDA in early 2018.  His prior inventions have also been licensed by Graybug Vision.  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.  This includes Mucommune, LLC, a startup focused on harnessing antibody-mucin interactions to prevent or treat infectious diseases at mucosal surfaces, and AI Tracking Solutions, a startup based on applying machine learning to video microscopy data analysis.  He has received numerous prestigious awards for his research, including the NSF CAREER Award and the Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering.


Lai’s current research interests span a diverse number of disciplines, include mucosal immunology and mucosal barriers to infectious disease, antibody response to synthetic materials, targeted nanoparticle delivery and viral gene therapy using bispecific antibodies, microbiome engineering, computational modeling and artificial intelligence. 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.

Education, Entrepreneurship and Outreach

To promote entrepreneurship and innovation among graduate students, professional students and postdocs, Lai has created 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.

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 currently serves as the Faculty Director of the Young Innovators Program.

  • Dynamic tuning of barrier properties of hydrogels using weakly adhesive third-party crosslinkers
  • Microrheology of menses simulation
  • Overcoming anti-PEG immunity to restore prolonged circulation and efficacy of PEGylated therapeutics
  • Young Innovators Program: an immersive research experiential program at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy

Sam Lai News