"The Ultimate Riddle" – An Expert's Perspective on The Immunology Field


Immunology is one of the most complex fields of life science to study. Thousands of scientists utilize their expertise in biology to focus on autoimmune diseases, cancer, immunodeficiencies and other immune disorders to help patients and cure diseases.

The Immunology Field, Explained

We interviewed Marianne Stanford, Ph.D., Vice President of Research and Development at IMV Inc., who oversees all preclinical research activities and clinical immunology assessment of cancer immunotherapies and infectious disease vaccines. In addition, she serves as an Adjunct Professor in Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University.

Stanford shared her thoughts on the field and the career path of an immunologist. If you are interested in immunology, hearing from a leader in industry and academia can give you the insight you need to make an informed decision about your career path.

Q: Before becoming an immunologist, can you tell us a little about your background? 

I was born and raised in Newfoundland, a small province on the eastern coast of Canada. Growing up, I always saw myself as someone keenly focused on science and yet the only career option I saw for myself was as a veterinarian. Once I entered university, I began to see the breadth of career paths you could do in science. I tried several, including working as a summer field biologist, and quickly learned that working in the field was not for me. That lead me to work in the lab. Fundamentally, looking back, I’ve always been someone asking questions – this fundamentally led me to be a scientist.

Q: What is immunology? Why did you decide to focus on it? 

Immunology is the study of our immune system. The immune system is in some ways the ultimate riddle – in some ways so simple and yet ridiculously complex. The job of the immune system is to determine what is ‘self’ and protect it from invaders. But the way in which it does this is something we learn more about every day. For that reason, it is a great (and yet sometime very frustrating) field of study.

Q: What do you think are the primary differences between immunology and other similar fields in biology? 

I think that what’s really interesting about studying the immune system is that everyone feels that they have a good handle on what their ‘immune system’ is and how it works. We understand that our body fights disease and that vaccines help protect us. However, once you begin to study the immune system in depth, you realize that there are so many things that we do not fully understand and that harnessing the immune system is incredibly difficult to do in the clinic.

Q: Have you noticed any new trends related to the field of immunology? 

There are a couple of really exciting new opportunities that have emerged in immunology in recent years. First and foremost, as our understanding of the checks and balances in the immune system have allowed us to advance new therapies that act directly on it to impact disease. The most obvious one is the advances of immunotherapy in cancer, whereby we manipulate and stimulate the immune system to help fight diseases like cancer.

This has opened a huge opportunity to treat many diseases with our own immune system, hopefully being more effective with fewer side effects. The second has been the understanding of the microbiome, or how the microbes that make up our bodies have a direct impact on our immune system. This study may change how we think of this interaction and is very exciting to follow. 

Q: What are some of the top benefits of being an immunologist?  

I think the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of new treatments for diseases like cancer are so gratifying. There are also many opportunities for collaboration and working with other great scientists on complex questions. This is an awesome way to work.

Q: How competitive is it to become an immunologist? 

I think like any field, to be at your best you need to find the right opportunities for mentorship and training. I’ve been very lucky to work with world-class scientists during my training and that has really allowed me to be successful.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring immunologists? 

Keep asking questions and never give up. Surround yourself with people who are passionate and as focused on mentorship as they are in science. 

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