CAREER GUIDES

Here's how immunologists protect the immune system against the foreign molecules

Image: 123RF/Anna Ivanova.

Immunologists study immune reactions and try to work out ways to boost the immune system to enable it to resist harmful micro-organisms more efficiently. The task of the human immune system is to protect the body against viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing agents such as influenza, meningitis and AIDS.

However, due to a number of factors, people are not always resistant to specific strains of micro-organisms which cause disease and infection. Immunology is the study of our protection from foreign molecules or invading organisms and our responses to them. These invaders include viruses, bacteria, protozoa or even larger parasites.

In addition, we develop immune responses against our own proteins in auto-immunity. Human beings have two lines of deference against foreign organisms: outer barrier tissues and the inner adaptive immune system. The barrier tissues, such as the skin, stop the entry of organisms into our bodies. If these barrier layers are penetrated, through a bite, for example, the body contains cells that respond rapidly to the presence of the invader.

However, the adaptive immune system may take days to respond to a primary invasion. The body produces antibodies (proteins that bind to foreign antigens) in which specific cells recognise foreign pathogens and destroy them. If neither of these immune defence mechanisms function properly in the person or animal, then alternative remedial approaches must be taken.

Usually this is in the form of antibiotics or another form of sophisticated, strong medical treatment.Immunologists help scientists and physicians in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of infections in animals and people by investigating how organisms cause disease and their role in attacking the immune system. Work in immunology is often interdisciplinary, so they may work closely with chemists, biochemists, geneticists, genetic engineers, pathologists and other physicians, environmentalists, civil engineers, veterinarians and geologists.

Immunologists use a variety of specialised equipment such as gas chromatographs and high pressure liquid chromatographs, electrophoresis units, thermocyclers, fluorescence activated cell sorters and phosphoimagers. They may also use computers in conducting experiments. It is common to find an immunologist using a microscope or performing experiments in a laboratory. However, the nature of the work may vary considerably with each assignment.

Personal requirements

  • Pay attention to detail
  • Interested in helping people
  • Able to get along well with people and instil confidence
  • Enjoy finding solutions to complex problems
  • Have an innate interest in natural phenomena
  • Have an inquiring mind
  • Have good manual dexterity
  • Be well-organised

How to enter

Schooling & school subjects

Compulsory subjects: MathematicsPhysical Science recommended subjects: Life Sciences 

Additional: 

  • Pass matric with a Bachelor's pass
  • Meet the admission requirements (APS) set by the university
  • All applications for admission to MBChB and Medical degrees are subject to selection.
  • Due to the limited number of spaces available, only a small percentage of applicants are admitted.

What to study

Immunologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in a biological field. For an independent research immunologist the minimum education requirement is a PhD in immunology. Medical immunologists preparing to work in hospitals usually obtain a medical degree and then specialise in immunology. Medical immunologists are usually expected to spend several years in a post-doctoral laboratory position before they get permanent jobs.

In order to work as a Medical Scientist in this field, registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is mandatory. Consult the HPCSA website for the most up-to-date information relating to accredited qualifications and registration requirements. This information can be found in the relevant sections under the Professional Board for Medical and Dental (and medical science) practitioners.  

Employment

  • Universities and colleges
  • Research organisations
  • Hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities
  • Private practice or in group practice

Getting started

  • Speak to an immunologist about this career
  • Read up on diseases of the immune system
  • Try and do voluntary work for organisations involved with people with immunological diseases

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