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The human immune system tries hard to protect the body against viruses, bacteria and other disease-like substances, such as the flu, meningitis and AIDS. However, due to a number of factors, humans are not always resistant to specific strains of micro-organisms which cause disease and infection. Immunologists study the processes and substances associated with the resistance of humans and animals to infections and diseases. They study immune reactions in humans and animals and try and figure out ways to boost the immune system to fight against harmful micro-organisms.

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.

Humans have two lines of defense against foreign organisms: outer barrier tissues and the inner adaptive immune system. The barrier tissues, such as the skin, stop the entry of organism into our bodies. However, if these barrier layers are penetrated, through a bite, for example, the body contains cells that respond rapidly to the presence of the invader. 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 recognize foreign pathogens and destroy them. If neither of these immune defense mechanisms function properly in the human or animal, then alternative remediation 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 humans 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 specialized 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 a immunologist peering through the lens of a microscope or performing other related experiments in a laboratory. However, the nature of the work may vary considerably with each assignment.
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  Interests and Skills  
Immunologists need an innate interest in natural phenomena and scientific research regarding the immune system, and an inquiring mind. They should have good manual dexterity for transferring micro-organisms from one culture medium to another without contaminating samples, and the ability to pay close attention to details. Most have a strong aptitude and background in microbiology, biochemistry and genetics. Immunologists are usually well organized, enjoy working in the laboratory with equipment and performing tasks which require precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research into the structure, function, ecology, biotechnology and genetics of micro-organisms, including bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and algae
  • Study the human immune system and its interactions with different environments
  • Conduct experiments to isolate and make cultures of specific micro-organisms under controlled conditions in relation to the immune system
  • Analyze nucleic acids, proteins and other substances produced by micro-organisms and their effects on the immune system
  • Perform tests on water, food and the environment to detect harmful micro-organisms and control sources of pollution and contamination
  • Conduct molecular or biochemical studies and experiments into genetic expression, gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology
  • Observe, identify and classify micro-organisms
  • Isolate micro-organisms involved in breaking down pollutants
  • Find ways for micro-organisms to help human immunity to disease
  • May supervise biological technologists and technicians and other scientists
  • Immunologists work indoors in laboratories and on computers. The pressure of having to meet project deadlines can be stressful and will often result in long work hours. Generally, immunologists put in long workweeks. For those working with toxic or harmful chemicals, following safety rules and wearing protective equipment will help avoid chemical injury or exposure to infection. Preventive inoculations will also help to protect medical immunologists from the risk of disease.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Immunologists work for governments, hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial laboratories, companies in the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and beverage companies, diagnostic laboratories, biotechnology firms, bioremediation companies, and companies in the oil industry. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, focusing on individual research projects.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Long term advancement will certainly depend on the education level of the immunologist. Those with master's degrees may work as professionals in laboratory settings, performing experiments. Immunologists with PhDs may conduct and lead individual and group research projects and teach in universities, manage hospital (clinical) diagnostic immunology laboratories or advance to senior scientific appointments in government or industry.

Advancement opportunities for immunologists depend on the size and nature of the employing organization and the qualifications of the employee. They can move into related biology fields such as biochemistry, genetics, ecology, virology or biochemical engineering. They can also become clinical technicians in health care facilities, quality control officers in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, or bioremediation specialists.

  Educational Paths  
At a minimum, immunologists have a bachelor's degree in a biology related field. For an independent research immunologist the minimum education requirement is a PhD in immunology. Medical immunologists preparing to work in hospitals usually take a medical degree (MD) and then specialize in immunology. Medical immunologists are usually expected to spend several years in a post-doctoral laboratory position before they get permanent jobs.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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