Five Decades of Curiosity and Discovery

July 11, 2023 | By Janah May Oclaman
Dr. Lewis Lanier speaks with researchers in his lab in 2016. Photo by Noah Berger.

Dr. Lewis Lanier speaks with researchers in his lab in 2016. Photo by Noah Berger.

Lewis Lanier, Ph.D. graduated from University of North-Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill with a graduate degree in Microbiology and Immunology. He continued his Immunology fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill and University of New Mexico, School of Medicine. Since the early 1980’s, Lanier Lab has investigated how natural killer (NK) cells distinguish between normal healthy cells and cells that are transformed or infected with viruses. In over four decades, Dr. Lanier discovered many of the receptors that NK cells use to recognize tumors and virus-infected cells and identified their signaling pathways and functions in immune defense. It had been thought that NK cells were short-lived and that innate immune cells do not possess immunological memory. By studying cytomegalovirus infection in mice and humans, Dr. Lanier first discovered that NK cells possess immunological memory against specific viral proteins – changing the paradigm about memory by all innate immune cells. At UCSF, Dr. Lanier and other laboratory and clinical scientists are working together to explore the therapeutic potential of NK cells in battling cancer and viral infection. 

In the past 48 years of his career, Dr. Lanier has served as a research-scientist, educator, mentor, leader, and pioneer, who helped transform the fields of Immunology and Microbiology. He has given more than 300 lectures in international, national, and regional forums, and contributed to more than 375 peer reviewed papers, 111 review articles, 46 books and chapters, and more than 20 biotech patents. 

Dr. Lanier has trained more than 50 graduate (Masters and Ph.D.) and postgraduate students, almost all of whom have successful careers in academics, biotech, or pharma. He mentored summer URM (underrepresented minority) students and utilized his role to ensure that his department’s search committees have diverse representation and give special consideration to URM and women applicants. In 2017, he received the American Association of Immunologist Excellence in Mentoring Award.

On May 11, 2023, Dr. Lanier was awarded The American Association of Immunologist (AAI) Lifetime Achievement Award,  the highest honor bestowed by the AAI Council, which recognizes a career of exemplary scientific contributions to the field, leadership in the community and dedicated membership and service to AAI. He was selected among more than 7,000 members.  

In an interview with Dr. Lanier, he reflected on his beginnings, milestones, current positions, and his hopes for the future.


What was your initial motivation in pursuing your career and how has that changed or developed over time?

Dr. Lanier: What I love about my job is that you learn something new every day. That is the beauty of research. There’s no single day where one my students or fellows and the seminars I go to, don’t teach me something new. Curiosity is what has always driven me. I want to discover new things.

What got you started in Microbiology & Immunology?

Dr. Lanier: In 10th Grade high school, I had an Experimental Biology class, where Mrs. Bonnie Stepka had us interpret experiment results. I thought I had knack for looking at experimental results and figuring out the conclusion. I ended up winning a State Science Fair Award and Freshman Science Scholarship at Virginia Tech. When I was a senior at Virginia Tech, they had their very first Immunology professor, who taught a graduate course in Immunology. I took [that course] and got turned on by so many unanswered questions. Essentially, 99% of what we know about Immunology has been discovered since I was an undergraduate.

You’ve had a long, exemplary career and contribution to the clinical space, research field, medical education, and biotech. What accomplishment/s in your career are you most proud of? 

Dr. Lanier: Discovering new things and changing the textbooks. That’s what I’m most excited about and most proud of.

What was your initial motivation in entering the Biotechnology space?

Dr. Lanier: Monoclonal antibody technology was invented when I was a grad student. I did a post-doc in New Mexico, where flow cytometry was pioneered. [It was a] time when they only had 3 to 4 flow cytometers on the whole planet. When I visited the Bay Area the first time, I had this excitement. I know that was the time when gene cloning was happening… flow cytometry was being developed and expanded…I was offered a Senior Scientist position at Becton Dickinson in Mountain View, CA by Noel Warner, who I worked with during my post doc in New Mexico. It provided me with the opportunity to see what it was like to be in Biotech. I took a little gamble, and it worked out.  

What does the AAI Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?

Dr. Lanier: I’ve been in Immunology since 1975 and a member of American Association of Immunology since 1980, where I’ve been president of the organization and an editor of their journal. It’s nice to have your colleagues acknowledge that you have done something important. The recognition from my colleagues that I did a good job is a nice way to end my career.

With the significant progress and discoveries in the field of Immunology and Microbiology in the past years, what are your thoughts of its future (direction) and what are your hopes for it?

Dr. Lanier: To start from a time when natural killer cells were viewed as artifacts, to now having at least 30 biotechs totally devoted to it, and to watch my team go from curing mice by treating them with antibodies in 1975, to seeing it work in people – the last 40 years has been the golden age of immunology. Most of major breakthroughs and advances in cancer therapy have been engaging your immune system. Right now, we only cure about 20% of those who receive therapies. The question now is, how do we raise that to 80% or 90%? With the amount of energy and money put into the field, I’m sure it will only make it better. 

What is your advice to medical and research learners who are still early in their career?

Dr. Lanier: Particularly in research, you need a high threshold for failure. Because if you want to discover new things, most things won’t work. You must put up with a lot of failure if you are trying to explore the unknown. If you’re not totally passionate about this, you should do something else. 

What are your hobbies outside as of work?

Dr. Lanier: My passion outside science is making sailboats go fast. If I’m not in the lab or on an airplane, I’m probably racing sailboats. I’ve been on a sailboat racing team since 1990 and from April to September, I race every Friday in the bay with my team.