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30 Apr 2019

Why are you an immunologist?

This week, the Doherty Institute is celebrating the Day of Immunology (29 April) – showcasing the innovative and important work we are doing to solve the unanswered questions about our immune systems.

To try and get an insight into immunology at the Doherty Institute, we asked our researchers why they are immunologists and what do they hope to achieve through their work – here is what they said.

There are still places on the Doherty Institute Discovery Tour and Public Lecture, An ABC of Childhood Immunity – Allergy, Bugs and Cancer, to be held at the Institute after the tour, register now to avoid missing out!

Dr Sidonia Eckle, ARC DECRA Research Fellow

I am fascinated about the complexity of the immune system and its ability to almost always protect the body from infections and cancer whilst tolerating anything that is not harmful. I also enjoy that a discovery on how the immune system works can somewhat readily be applied therapeutically. Further, I enjoy the cross-disciplinary aspects of immunology, including biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology and clinical sciences.

I’d like to better understand how the immune system works and to harness the fundamental discoveries we are making for better or new therapies.

Professor David O’Connor, Miegunyah Distinguished Fellow, on sabbatical at the Doherty Institute from University of Wisconsin-Madison
Every day we are bathed in microbes, so much so that they dramatically outnumber the number of cells in our body. How do we manage to stay alive in this microbial stew? Our immune system is exquisitely calibrated to protect us from harmful infections without being so aggressive that it destroys our cells. That's incredible! Being an immunologist (albeit one who also spends a lot of time studying viruses and genomics) lets me figure out how this all works.

In my lifetime, society has confronted scary new viral outbreaks -  HIV, SARS, MERS, Zika virus, Ebola virus H1N1 influenza, etc. - that seemingly emerged from thin air. But they didn't. My research tries to predict what sort of viral threats will emerge in the future, how our immune systems fight off infections that they haven't encountered frequently in our evolutionary history, and how these viruses shape, and are shaped by, the immune responses that are mounted to fight them.

Milla McLean, Research Assistant
As an immunologist, I’m driven by a desire to understand the reasons why my colleagues in medical clinics or in public health are observing unique medical cases, novel diseases or unexpected outbreaks. My work lives inside the ‘cell’, and follows its path around the body fighting disease.

I hope to help piece together a difficult puzzle that tormented Egyptian Pharos in 2400 BC and now affects two billion humans worldwide – tuberculosis. My work is looking at why some people live their lives without knowing they are infected while others progress to potentially incurable disease.

Dr Nicholas Gherardin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
The Immune system is highly complex and is protects us from disease is diverse ways. I’m an immunologist because unlocking the secrets of the immune system will have profound impacts on human health, and the treatment of disease.

Through curiosity-driven research, I hope to uncover exciting new functions of the immune system that can be harnessed to treat disease.

Dr Hui-Fern Koay, NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow
You know that great feeling you get when you come across a new excellent restaurant or a bar in your city? If we imagine that the immune system is our city and my work is to find shiny and new bits and pieces that make it up - it's daily excitement!

I hope to at the very least contribute to knowledge advancement, be it an additional paragraph in the immunology textbook or adding to the way we currently treat diseases, by gaining more understanding of how our cells work and how to manipulate that. 

Dr Hamish McWilliam, Research Fellow
The way the body copes with microbes has always fascinated me: it must either live with them or fight them. From what we know so far, it is a sophisticated, beautiful mess of cells and molecules that our life depends on. But we are still tying to figure that out, and I consider myself lucky to be able to be part of the immunology field to contribute towards understanding it.

I hope to contribute a piece of the huge puzzle of how our body’s immune system works - and it would be amazing if something I had a hand in became a treatment for illness and made life better for people.

Teagan Wagner, Research Assistant
Imagine an intruder enters your house to cause absolute havoc! You’d do anything to fight them off and protect your home - right? Every day your immune system, made up of tiny little warriors and soldiers, fights off intruders to protect you. These immune cells are literally our heroes and I want to know more about their super powers; that’s why I’m an immunologist.  

Ultimately, I hope that one day we will understand immunity well enough to know exactly which weapons the warriors and soldiers of our immune system need to keep us safe and protected. More specifically, I hope we can equip them with the ammunition they need to fight off one of the nastiest intruders of all; cancer.

Dr Lynette Beattie, Senior Research Officer
I fell in love with the exquisite complexity of the immune system during my undergraduate degree and decided that I wanted to spend my time trying to understand it. After nearly 20 years my brain still only understands a tiny fraction of what my body knows how to do innately. This still fascinates and frustrates me.

I hope that the tiny pieces of information that I discover through my research will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of how our bodies fight infection, and maybe in the very long term will make that fight a little easier for everybody.

Dr Carolien van de Sandt, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
I want to know how we defend ourselves against dangerous viruses and why we can make vaccines that give good protection against some viruses (eg measles), but why development of a ‘­­one-shot’ vaccine against other viruses is more difficult (eg HIV and Influenza).

I aim to get a better understanding of how our immune system (our defence mechanism) develops, functions and changes across human lifespan. This will help us improve vaccine strategies. 

Katherine Gourley, Research Assistant
I am an immunologist because I want to understand how our immune system keep us safe from infectious diseases and cancers.

I hope to improve understanding of the mechanisms behind our immune system and drive research to further harness the immune system for use in anti-cancer medicine.

Dr Alexandra Corbett, ARC Future Fellow
Firstly, curiosity – the way in which all the cells and molecules of the immune system work together to combat disease, and how this can sometimes go wrong, is fascinating. And, secondly, knowing how this stuff works is pretty important to human health!

Wouldn’t it be amazing if something I discovered led to a new treatment, vaccine or cure?
Specifically, I work on cells that recognise small metabolites produced by microbes (like the bacteria that live in our guts, or the ones that infect our lungs and make us really sick). By understanding the complexities of this amazing microbe-detection system, I hope to harness these cells to generate better vaccines or medications for a range of infections and inflammatory diseases.

Associate Professor Scott Mueller, Laboratory Head
All major functions of the body are influenced by the immune system. I am an immunologist because a full understanding of how our immune system works will have enormous benefits for health and the treatment of most, if not all, diseases. 

My work seeks to understand how our immune system ’ticks’, and to apply this knowledge to the treatment of diseases from infections to cancer and beyon