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Assistant Professor

About Dr. Akerman

My vision is to establish an inclusive environment in which scientists, medical professionals, and researchers can collaborate creatively to investigate, examine, and analyze disease pathology. I aspire to bridge the healthcare gap and resolve disparity by pioneering new, better, more accessible ways to treat patients: Specifically, I want by discover and implement treatments that are cheaper and more widely available to all, but especially to those groups who have been systemically disenfranchised or denied equal access to quality care.

Early in my graduate career, I realized how crippling the overarching disparity in STEM could be. I made a decision then to do my best to foster diversity, increase equity, provide spaces for inclusion and belonging as much as I could. While I was increasingly excited to actualize real change, I began to realize, however, just how daunting a task this could be.

When I was invited to direct the Cardiovascular Research Laboratory in the division of cardiothoracic surgery at UNC Chapel Hill, I knew I had an obligation to recruit the best candidates, and also ensure access to positions and opportunities to minimize implicit exclusionary systems. In this role, I have hired, mentored, and worked alongside men and women who identified or belonged to myriad communities. The merits of diversity notwithstanding, they were one and all scientists, researchers, and professionals first and foremost. I firmly believe my laboratory, UNC, and the scientific community generally are made better when we leverage the potential of all. Our success as scientists and leaders should be measured by those whom we empower rather than by those whom we exclude.

I have tailored my work such that I can achieve goals like these. This is precisely why I pursue inexpensive and scalable therapeutics and diagnostics. I established a state-of-the-art translational research facility, small animal surgical laboratory, and large clinical tissue and plasma repository to study cardiovascular disease and conduct cutting-edge biochemical experimentation. I hope that my work establishes an empirical cornerstone for innovative therapeutic and diagnostic development and contributes meaningfully to the scientific community.

Cardiovascular Research Laboratory

  • Protein Simple Jess System – A capillary-based nano-immunoassay size-based separation platform with chemiluminescent, two-color fluorescence detection and RePlex™.
  • Bio-Rad ddPCR workstation, which includes a QX-200 droplet generator, a Qx-200 Droplet reader, laptop with QuantaSoft Software, and a dedicated C-1000 Touch thermocycler.
  • Izon Science qNano Gold Tunable Resistive Pulse Sensor (TRPS).
  • qEV Automatic Fraction Collector (Izon Science).
  • Luminex LX-200 – An immune based multiplex suspension array platform that provides a robust, rapid, specific, and cost-effective approach for high-throughput and simultaneous quantification of many different protein targets simultaneously.
  • Applied Biosystems StepOne Plus with dedicated laptop and Bio-Rad CFX96 Real-Time PCR Systems.
  • Molecular Devices SpectraMax i3x Multi-Mode Detection Platform and Imaging Cytometer complete with SpectraDrop micro-volume microplate and a ScanLater WesternBlot cartridge.
  • Molecular Devices Aquamax 2000 automated plate washing station with standard and 96 well cell-wash heads with magnetic stage.
  • Bio-Rad C-1000 touch two-block gradient thermocycler.
  • A dedicated 370C incubator for bacterial culture and plasmid preparation.
  • Echo Labs Revolve hybrid upright and inverted LED 8 MP microscope with air and oil objectives ranging from 4X to 60X (Achromat and Fluorite), an ELWD hi resolution condenser, and multiple LED filter sets.
  • The Cardiothoracic Surgery Research Murine Procedure Facility is equipped with rodent operating stations, each with a high-quality surgical microscope (0.5-2.5X, Zeiss Opmi6), a thermostatically controlled far infrared warming pad and multi-functioning surgical platform (Kent Scientific), an isoflurane vaporizer (Ohmeda) connected to controlled-flow oxygen lines, and a small animal ventilator (VentElite, Harvard Apparatus).
  • Dedicated BSL-2 cell culture facility.
  • BTX-800-ECM in vitro and in vivo Electroporation system.
  • Bacterial Transformation and Expression Vector Production Facility.

Research Interests

My research focuses on diagnostic and therapeutic development as it relates to cardiovascular pathology. In previous studies, I have examined abnormalities in protease expression and regulation by modulation of microRNAs. I have worked to define differential and distinct responses to mechanical and inflammatory stimuli of the thoracic and abdominal aorta. I have made significant contributions toward the development of a biomarker profile that identifies different etiological subtypes of aortic aneurysms. I have tailored my work such that I can endeavor to address health disparities and further parity in the health care sector. This is precisely why I pursue inexpensive and scalable inventions and therapeutics: I want to ensure the widest availability possible.


  • PhD: Molecular Cellular Biology and Pathobiology, The Medical University of South Carolina, College of Graduate Studies, Charleston SC, 2017
  • MS: Microbiology and Immunology, The Medical University of South Carolina, College of Graduate Studies, Charleston SC, 2012
  • BS: Biology, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, Charleston SC, 2007

Awards, Honors, and Funded Projects

Enhanced Biochemical Monitoring for Aortic Aneurysm Disease
NIH/NHLBI 1 R01 HL169390-01
Akerman (PI)
July 01, 2023-June 30 2027
Aortic Aneurysm (AA) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality; AAs weaken the vessel wall and lead to dilation that often progresses to rupture in the absence of symptoms. There are no point-of-care diagnostic tests available that either screen for AAs or follow disease progression to optimize timing for surgical intervention. This award will advance a standardized screening technique that determines aneurysm presence, location, and diameter; such information may be used for risk stratification and will surely mitigate life-threatening aortic complications in the general population.

Therapeutic delivery of nucleic acids to the thoracic aorta: The potential of mesenchymal stem cells and their secreted extracellular vesicles as delivery vehicles for expression vectors.
NIH/NHLBI R01 HL171007-01
Akerman (PI)
This project is a new line of investigation for which no preliminary data has been collected. If successfully funded, it will investigate the following: Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm (TAA) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. No effective medical therapy exists. This award will investigate the potential protective properties of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs) and their secreted Extracellular Vesicles (EVs) and test their ability to perform targeted delivery of nucleic acid expression vectors to the thoracic aorta.

Device-Based Pathway Intervention: Mechanistic Study of Cellular Localization of Proteolytic Enzymes in Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm Disease
NIH/NHLBI R56 HL161454-01A1
Ikonomidis (PI) Role: Co-Investigator
September 22, 2022 – September 21, 2023
Thoracic aortic aneurysm is a deadly disease for which there is currently no effective medical therapy. This laboratory has identified three molecules that mediate the formation and progression of aneurysm disease; our approach is clinically relevant and will study the functions of these molecules in order to develop new methods for non-surgical treatment. The myriad benefits of such treatment are self-evident; we are, however, particularly interested in bridging the current health gap by pioneering better, more accessible, ways to treat all patients and ensuring democratized access to the highest quality care.

Investigating the Effects of Bupropion (Wellbutrin/Zyban) On Aortic Aneurysm
2022 Innovation Pilot Award
Caranasos (PI) Role: Co-Investigator
June 1, 2022 – May 31, 2023
The FDA-approved antidepressant, Bupropion, has been demonstrated to regulate two independent pathways involved with aortic aneurysm progression. The overall goal of this project is to demonstrate Bupropion prevents aneurysm progression in an animal model.

Development of a Liquid Biopsy Based Diagnostic Test for Assessing Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm Disease
2021 UNC Idea Grant
Akerman (PI)
July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022

Defining the role of mesenchymal stem cells in aortic aneurysm disease
2021 Junior Faculty Development Award
Akerman (PI)
January 1, 2021 – December 31, 2021

Development of a method for targeted gene delivery to the murine thoracic aorta
2021 North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute Pilot Award: 2KR1352001
Akerman (PI)

Exploration of key proteases and validation of biomarkers in genetically triggered thoracic aortic aneurysms
Ikonomidis (PI) Role: Co-Investigator

Ex-vivo lung perfusion to deliver nucleic acids to cells in human lungs
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Egan (PI), Role: Co-Investigator

Transmembrane Proteolytic Induction and Thoracic Aneurysms NIH/NHLBI R01HL102121
Ikonomidis (PI) Role: Co-Investigator

Dr. Raymond S. Greenberg Presidential Scholar, Medical University of South Carolina. (2016-2017) A yearlong inter-professional experience that maximizes exploration of complex social, political, and human issues related to healthcare.

Eric James Award Recipient, Medical University of South Carolina (2016) – First place oral presentation award recipient of a university-wide research competition.

NIH/NHLBI T32 Cardiovascular Competitive Training Grant Recipient: HL007260-37 (2013-2015).


Read a list of Dr. Akerman’s recent publications by clicking here

Search for publications on PubMed using Akerman, AW as search criteria

  • Phone Number

    (919) 843-6318 (Office Phone)

  • Address

    Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery

    UNC Department of Surgery

    Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7050