Leadership Comes Naturally to Duke Human Vaccine Institute's First Associate Director


In just the past year, Kevin Saunders, PhD, a professor of surgery, microbiology, and immunology, has received tenure, was awarded a multi-million-dollar contract from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to study a universal coronavirus vaccine, and was named the first associate director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI). These aren’t his only achievements in the last year, and it is evident that from the very start he has been one step ahead of his peers for most of his life. Saunders skipped kindergarten and went straight to first grade. He entered high school at the age of 13 and enrolled in 10th grade classes while in the 9th grade.

Saunders’ biggest role to date has been the one he was chosen to lead this past April, a newly created position within DHVI, associate director. The director of DHVI, Barton Haynes, MD, who established the Institute in 1990 along with Dani Bolognesi, chose Saunders for the role. Haynes says, “Kevin Saunders is a natural leader in that he leads by example and is concerned about all who are on the team. He has already demonstrated the ability to lead well in complex situations.”

Barton Haynes and Kevin Saunders in lab
Barton Haynes and Kevin Saunders consult in the Haynes lab

“Kevin Saunders is a natural leader in that he leads by example and is concerned about all who are on the team. He has already demonstrated the ability to lead well in complex situations.”

Barton Haynes, MD

His love for science and influences along the way

For Saunders, biology class felt like something he was good at. He received high marks in class and says it came natural to him and he found it interesting. Saunders says he liked learning how varied science could be in his biology class, “One week you’re working on how the heart beats, the next week you’re working on dissecting animals.” Saunders’ teacher made an impression on him, even offering his greenhouse for science fair projects. In the 11th grade, that influence led the way to Saunders making it to a city-wide science fair. For that project, he looked for anti-bacterial resistance from bacteria he collected from surfaces around the house. He then tested household cleaners for effectiveness.

Saunders recalls, “It was cool because I got to work a little with my mom. She was a registered nurse and found journal articles on anti-bacterial resistance for me. I took agar plates and put bacteria on them and dipped them in disinfectant. You could measure how effective the disinfectant was by observing interactions.” He would conduct his experiments by himself and felt like he was in the zone. “I knew I wanted to work toward a career in research and not so much medicine. I enjoy focusing in on a problem and seeing how well I can figure it out on my own. Those eureka-type moments provide a release in endorphins,” he says.

Saunders is sure to let younger scientists know that those moments may be hard to get to, but they’re very rewarding. “Some scientists may not make it through those deserts, but others have those eureka moments and it feels great. It gives you a good reset and can recalibrate you,” said Saunders.

Among the people that have influenced him along the way are his high school biology teacher, Ed McMichael, his genetics teacher in undergrad, Karen G. Hales, PhD, and Barton Haynes, MD, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. As a graduate student, Saunders says immunologist Georgia Tomaras, PhD, director of the Duke Center for AIDS Research, had a major impact on him being where he is today.

Georgia Tomaras and Kevin Saunders in cap and gown
Kevin Saunders poses for a photo with his mentor Georgia Tomaras

Under her mentorship he found his calling – unraveling the mysteries of how the immune system combats HIV infection. He says she led him through and encouraged him. With Haynes, Saunders is now learning the techniques of leadership in an academic institution, drawing on Haynes’ 44 years of leadership at Duke.

Saunders says that mentors and sponsors are crucial in this field. He explains, “They are the people who tell you that you can achieve your goals. They have the power and leadership to help you get opportunities. They’re in the places you aren’t. If you need money for a program or need nominations, someone has to be your sponsor and come forward and say ‘You know who would be great? Kevin’.”

His biggest sponsor - Barton Haynes. His interactions with Haynes have been encouraging. Haynes would tell him to go for it when it came to grants and funding his research. Saunders may have thought he couldn’t do these big things but he recalls Haynes would say, “No one in the world will be better than you. You should do it!”

Now, Haynes and Saunders lead the charge in researching HIV, influenza, and SARS-CoV-2, along with Thomas Denny, DHVI’s chief operating officer. As DHVI’s top leaders in science, their continuous hard work and discoveries aim to find cures and develop universal vaccines to prevent pandemics.

Barton Haynes and Kevin Saunders walking down hallway
Barton Haynes and Kevin Saunders interview with CNN about universal COVID vaccine research

Saunders’ lab at DHVI is a key part of the team working to create an antibody-based vaccine against HIV. One challenge the Saunders lab is tackling is that the sugar molecules on the HIV-1 envelope, known as Env glycans, don’t kickstart a robust immune response on their own. The laboratory aims to target these molecules and prompt the immune system to produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize the HIV virus.

The Saunders lab is also a key part of the team that is at the forefront in DHVI’s role in developing a coronavirus vaccine that’s protective against a broad range of coronaviruses, which new research shows is an achievable goal.

The balancing act between work and home life

Every weekday morning, Saunders wakes up at 4:00 a.m., making sure to get some work done before the rest of the household wakes up. Saunders and his wife Jessica have two children, a 10-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Once everyone is up, he joins them for breakfast, helps get the kids ready for the day, and then heads to work. Most every night after he returns home, and after spending time with his family, he does scientific reading and writing and reviews experimental results. On the weekends, when he’s not taking them to extracurricular activities, he’s working.

When does he get time to himself? He says one way is through running. He started running during the COVID-19 pandemic. He averages around ten miles a week and says, “It’s very calming, I have no worries. I push everything to the side because that’s my time. I listen to music I don’t regularly listen to by choosing some random station on Pandora. But my favorite song is that Get Out My Way song in the commercial where the mom is running while recording her son in a race.”

Typical week at DHVI

Team science is paramount at DHVI. Saunders’ laboratory consists of nearly two dozen researchers, postdocs, and scientists, working in tandem with other lab teams throughout the Institute and Duke. A typical week for Saunders consists of various lab project team meetings, mentoring budding and career scientists, finance meetings including discussions around grants and contracts, committee meetings, a weekly meeting with Dr. Haynes and navigating among campus events – along with squeezing in lunch. Saunders also serves as chairperson of DHVI’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee.

Collage of various Kevin Saunders activities
Top left: Saunders lab weekly meeting
Top middle: Saunders consults with Joe Zhou, senior research associate
Top right: Saunders with wife, Jessica, and two children
Middle left: Saunders consults with Elizabeth Donahue, scientific program leader
Second over from middle left: Saunders' bobble head figure of Anthony Fauci and a 3D model of the pancoronavirus vaccine
​​​​Third over from middle left: Saunders attending meeting on Zoom
Bottom left: Saunders microwaves lunch in his office
Bottom middle: Saunders walks from his campus office to another campus event
Bottom right: Saunders working at home

Saunders' recently received the Emerging Leader Award, the Ruth and A. Morris Williams Faculty Research Prize, and received Paper of the Year in 2021 for his publication in Nature, Neutralizing antibody vaccine for pandemic and pre-emergent coronaviruses.

Saunders turned 40 this past November.