Sam Lai, Ph.D., has been promoted to associate professor with tenure in the Division of Molecular Pharmaceutics.
Lai’s research focuses on mucosal immunology and mucosal barriers to infectious disease, antibody response to synthetic materials, targeted nanoparticle delivery using bispecific fusion proteins, and computational modeling of physiological processes.
Since joining the School in 2010, Lai has established the E(I) Lab program for UNC students from different subject areas to design, develop and assess solutions to unmet health-care needs. In collaboration with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, he created the “What’s Snot to Like?” laboratory module and education curriculum that’s been used to teach thousands of middle school students around the state. And he built a vigorous research program that incorporates various tools from engineering, immunology, biophysics and molecular biology to study infectious diseases at mucosal surfaces, targeted drug delivery and nanoparticle immune interactions.
In 2013, Lai was recognized with a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a five-year, $875,000 award that recognizes the nation’s most innovative young scientists. In 2012, he received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation, the NSF’s most prestigious award for the development of junior faculty.
“Dr. Lai has amassed an impressive academic record in teaching, research and service,” said Michael Jay, Ph.D., the chair of MOPH and Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor. “He has positively contributed to the education of young students in Chapel Hill and across the state, and his lab is clearly a magnet for quality students and postdoctoral fellows.”
In 2015, Lai’s research lab spun out Mucommune, LLC, the fourth startup to join the Eshelman Institute for Innovation MicroIncubator, a space at the School allocated for the development of faculty-founded startup companies.
Mucommune’s primary focus is using antibody-mucin interactions to prevent or treat infectious diseases at mucosal surfaces, such as those in the lung airways, gastrointestinal tract, female reproductive tract and the eye. Mucommune received its first federal contract in early 2016.
Prior to joining the School, Lai spent two years as a research assistant professor and a year as postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He received his Bachelor of Science in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Cornell University in 2003 and Doctor of Philosophy in the same field from Johns Hopkins in 2007. His earlier work led to the formation of Kala Pharmaceuticals, and also resulted in intellectual property licensed by Graybug Vision.
Lai has published more than 45 peer-reviewed papers during his career.