The Tools to Change the World

Dr. Sam Lai grew up in a privileged setting and thought the best way to show his appreciation was to become a doctor – until it wasn’t.

“I’ve always felt that the two pillars in any society are health and education, but during my teenage years I came to realize I didn’t want to be a doctor, but instead someone who provides a doctor with the necessary tools to treat patients,” Lai says.

Lai works as an associate professor and director of the Pharmacoengineering Program at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, where he runs the Lai Lab.

“I hope to impact society by bringing new medicines to the market,” says Lai. “There are few instances in one’s profession where, literally, what you can do with your hands offers the potential to change the world for the better.”

Lai’s research has spawned two companies: Mucommune, which develops mucosal biologics to treat and prevent a variety of infectious diseases, and AI Tracking Solutions, which uses artificial intelligence to automate analysis of video microscopy data.

One of Lai’s most significant contributions is serving as the faculty director of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Young Innovators Program. Part of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, the program engages top-tier high school students in cutting-edge and innovative research in the pharmaceutical sciences. It challenges them to think creatively and critically as they solve real and urgent health-care problems, all under the guidance of School mentors.

“I train students who aren’t afraid to be different and strive to leave their own mark on society,” Lai says.

The Eshelman Institute for Innovation is made possible by a $100 million gift from Fred Eshelman to accelerate the creation and development of ideas leading to discoveries and transformative changes in education, research and health care. To learn more about the EII’s impact, visit

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