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Immunology: What qualifications will you need to become a practising professional?

Immunology
Immunology is an important branch of the biological sciences, as well as one of the most complex. Source: Douglas Magno / AFP

Immunology is an exciting area of biomedical sciences. Over two centuries ago, Edward Jenner, “the father of immunology”, purposefully infected an eight year-old-boy with a disease that killed almost 10% of England’s population. Many people questioned his actions, but Jenner remained confident in his method. The young boy, James Phipps, did not die. In fact, he exhibited no signs of smallpox whatsoever. The result of this experiment? The world’s very first vaccine.

This life-saving medicine was the product of immunology. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned that there will never be such a thing as too many life-saving professionals who specialise in creating these preventive substances.

Immunology, by definition, is the study of the human immune system. It is not just an important branch of biomedical sciences, it is also one of the most complex. These professionals work as scientists or clinicians across different areas of research in diverse clinical specialities, ranging from allergy to cancer. Some might deal with human illnesses, while some also work within veterinary sciences.

Immunology

Maria Ferreira, 74, is vaccinated by a health worker. Source: Michael Dantas / AFP

Depending on an individual’s interest area or the organisation they work for, they often take on various kinds of work. Many teach and conduct research at universities. Others work in laboratories for government health agencies. Some are employed by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, developing new medical products and treatments. Many also work in medical offices, treating patients with autoimmune diseases.

The road to practicing immunology

Aspiring immunologists will need the right education and extensive training and an undergraduate degree is only the first step. Clinical positions that involve work with patients requires a medical school background and a doctor of medicine qualification.

Many schools offer pre-med programmes leading up to a bachelor of science. A major in biology is another pathway. Regardless of the path you choose, courses in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, statistics, and mathematics are extremely crucial in designing your path.

The next step will include passing the Medical College Admissions Test, otherwise known as the MCAT. Once participants obtain a good score, medical school is the next destination. During this time, students spend the first two years in classrooms and laboratories, learning every aspect of human body systems, disease, pharmacology, medical ethics, and skills such as how to properly conduct examinations on patients.

The following two years are spent completing clinical rotations. Here, students apply their knowledge, diagnosing and treating patients under the supervision of a licensed physician. Upon completion, medical school graduates are required to complete a residency, oftentimes conducting extensive lab work to gain experience with immunological testing methods.

A fellowship will usually last three years. Once training and studies are completed, aspiring immunologists will be able to obtain a license from their state’s health board or a similar governing body. In the US, immunologists must be certified by the American Board of Paediatrics (ABP) or the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) as a prerequisite for being certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI).

Once all the educational steps are complete, graduates will finally be able to begin their careers. With immunologists being highly trained and respected, these professionals reap rewards that go beyond saving lives.

As of 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that allergists and immunologists earned a median annual salary of US$206,500. The BLS also indicates that these physicians would see a job growth rate of 3 to 4% or higher from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

Apart from the demand and the benefits that come with it, there are many reasons why immunology can offer long-term job stability. Overall, it is an excellent career path for anyone passionate about utilising science to solve global challenges.