Dr. Ainslie is a Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Division Pharmacoengineering & Molecular Pharmaceutics at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, with affiliations in the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Her lab focuses on modulation of immune responses to prevent and treat cancer, infectious and autoimmune diseases. After completing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a postdoc in biomedical engineering, she started at Ohio State University in 2009 and moved to UNC in 2014. She has over 75 peer-reviewed publications and has received over $21M in federal funding as PI to support her work. Her research has helped to shine a light on the role of degradation and co-delivery of antigen/adjuvant in vaccine microparticles in the context of infectious disease prevention.
Questions for Luminary
- What sparked your interest in science in general and drug delivery in particular?
I was always interested in medicine and wanted to be a veterinarian until 16, and then I wanted to become a doctor. In high school, I had the opportunity to intern at Upjohn Co., where I participated in a pre-clinical evaluation of erectile dysfunction drugs and clinical studies involving some of the first HIV anti-retroviral cocktail studies. From that experience, I entered college and became interested in chemistry and, eventually, chemical engineering. Although I enjoyed my previous research experience, I wanted to work before going to graduate school to ensure that was the path I wanted. Once I entered graduate school, I began first applying engineering concepts to biological systems and then eventually worked with nanomaterials and biopolymer-based materials for drug delivery. This ended up being a strong focus of my independent lab.
- Share a turning point or defining moment you experienced in your work as a scientist.
There were two. One was when I worked as a consulting environmental engineer after my BS. I enjoyed the people but hated the job, although I had a variety of experiences, including onsite work, drafting documents, webpage design, and even design of treatment facilities. This convinced me more than anything that I wanted to focus on research, which meant I had to pursue a PhD. Similarly, when I worked in a start-up in Bethesda Maryland, while my husband was finishing up his PhD, I realized industrial research was not the avenue I wanted either. The second moment was shortly before I began my independent lab when a long-time friend who worked in a Naval Research lab needed someone to make nanoparticles for an anthrax vaccine. Before this, I had not done vaccine research, but the initial funding for this project brought additional funding and now infectious disease vaccines are a large part of my research focus.
- Tell us about the exciting ways in which your particular field is progressing.
Right now, the hottest thing is, of course, mRNA lipid-based vaccines (LNPs). With the use of these vaccines in the COVID vaccine formulations, much of the emerging technology is relying on these formulations.
- What is the best piece of professional advice you have received and from whom?
I am not sure. Looking back, I was never in a position to seek and receive career advice. Much of it I had to try and figure it out on my own, often making mistakes.
- Would you change anything about your career path if you could start over?
Probably not because I would not be where I am now. I try not to focus on what I could have changed, only what I can change going forward and what I can learn from my countless past mistakes.
- What advice would you give to someone who is starting their scientific career?
I would say to take opportunity that comes to you and do not focus on what you cannot do, but things that are nearby that you can do. For instance, my lab is where it is now, partly because I decided to make nanoparticles for an anthrax vaccine despite having absolutely no background in that area. I have had to learn so many things outside my area of training usually by learning from criticism as best I can as well as others around me. Also, to always be respectful of the ideas of others and collaboration.
- What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab? What are your hobbies/interests?
Most of my time outside work is spent with my 10 and 13 year old boys, my husband, two cats and a retired greyhound. When I do have free time, I do bake desserts with my younger son and I also quilt. I have completed a quilt for each of my PhD students and for any postdocs who have babies.