Atsuko Sakurai-Sangria, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at VLP Therapeutics, a biotech start-up company developing vaccines against infectious diseases and cancer. She received her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences from Kitasato University in Tokyo, Japan. After her postdoctoral training at the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center in Osaka, Japan, she joined the Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer Branch at National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH. She focused on the study of the signaling pathways regulating tumorigenesis, tumor-induced angiogenesis, and metastasis under the supervision of Dr. J. Silvio Gutkind. She has been working for VLP Therapeutics since 2013 with the goal of developing a new vaccine-based immunotherapy against cancer. She also manages collaborative projects involving academic institutions, contract research organizations, and the U.S. Army for a first-in-human malaria vaccine trial planned in 2018.


1. How would you define a good leader?
To me, a good leader is positive, encouraging, and humble – my supervisor at NIH was a great leader and my role model. When I joined his team, he was already an established, well-respected scientist who led a big team. However, he said he’s not my boss, he is my colleague who happens to have a little more experience. He worked the hardest, but never said “I’m busy” or “I’m tired”. His office door was literally always open for us, and he always made time for us to discuss anything. I hope I can be a leader like him one day.

2. Why did you become a scientist?
My family runs pharmacies in Japan, and I am the oldest of four sisters. My parents encouraged me to study pharmacy, become a pharmacist, and take over the family business (Asian tradition!). However, during my undergraduate years, I found myself loved basic science classes such as biochemistry and microbiology. I decided to pursue my Ph.D. to see how much I like science, and working in the lab never felt like a “job”. That’s why I’m still in the field.

3. What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
I would tell my 20 year old self to focus on what I like, not what I don’t like.

4. How do you de-stress?
Workout, music (classical and jazz), and cats always make me happy. Reading books, visiting bookstores and libraries also helps me relax.

5. What college course do you regret not taking as a student?
I wish I could have taken sociology and had a chance to do some kind of filed work. However, I loved History of Medicine course. Because it’s important to understand social and biological factors that contribute to our health issues. I believe scientists should go out of the lab, meet non-scientists more.