Sam Lai
Sam Lai, PhD

Assistant professor Sam Lai, PhD, is teaming up with mathematicians and science educators to tackle a sticky subject.

Lai has received a Career Award from the National Science Foundation, the NSF’s most prestigious award for the development of junior faculty. The five-year, $400,000 award will support his research into stopping pathogens in the body’s mucous membranes. He will also be part of several educational efforts, including working with a precollege science-education program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to develop a curriculum to teach middle and high school students about the health functions of mucus.

Most infections do not begin in the blood or enter through undamaged skin. Instead, they are transmitted at exposed mucosal surfaces such as the pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive tracts, Lai says. That makes mucus—the slimy and sticky secretions that line mucosal surfaces—the first line of defense against pathogens such as viruses. Despite the importance of mucous membranes in protecting against foreign substances, Lai says, few people have thought to take advantage of mucus in developing methods to prevent infections.

“In this project, we will explore how the immune system can be tuned to transform mucus into a sticky mesh against diverse pathogens, effectively trapping them in mucus and reducing infections in the process,” he says.

Lai is collaborating with two applied mathematicians—Greg Forest, PhD, and Scott McKinley, PhD—to create models to predict how effectively antibodies can immobilize a wide range of viruses in mucus. Forest is the Grant Dahlstrom Distinguished Professor of Mathematics & Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Mathematics at UNC-Chapel Hill, while McKinley is an assistant professor at the University of Florida.

As part of the project, Lai will work with the DESTINY Traveling Science Learning Program at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to develop a curriculum for middle and high school students and teachers. DESTINY works to improve precollege science education in the state by developing and delivering hands-on curricula for students and teachers and providing professional development for teachers. The program has benefited more than 250,000 students and 400 teachers since its inception in 2000.

The team will develop a curriculum that uses simple, hands-on experiments to help explain real-life experiences and discuss the biology, chemistry, and physics illustrated through pathogens and mucus.

“Mucus is the reason why we can blink, eat, digest, reproduce, and breathe without getting sick constantly,” Lai says. “Mucus is a topic that catches the attention of many young students, making it a fun and effective platform to teach important principles in science and research. We hope the experience will help encourage students to pursue careers in science and medicine.”

Additionally, Lai will provide a research-immersion experience in his lab each year for at least one student from the North Carolina School of Science and Math. He will also be working with the UNC PREP program to help prepare students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences for entry and success in top biomedical PhD programs.

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