Moving In

July 19, 2006 at 2:33 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’ve been lurking on a number of cool science blogs for a while now. I often don’t feel qualified to join in the discussion on other people’s blogs, but there are things I’d like to talk about (and need the external motivation to think about) so I decided to start my own blog.

I’m a PhD student in immunology, soon to start my 4th year. I’m getting to the stage where people start asking how much longer I’ll be here (bad people!), but somehow I still feel like I just began. I don’t think I’ll be going into any detail about my research, but I’ll probably be complaining about wrangling enormous data sets quite frequently.

“Sinking the Iceberg” refers to an analogy I originally heard in my first-year basic cell & molecular biology class that first made me think about how wondrous the immune system is. Although disease is certainly not rare, health is taken for granted as the normal state of being and complete health is the goal of research into treatments. Yet, disease really only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of infections. We are constantly exposed to pathogens and yet the vast majority of these are prevented from actually infecting us, or unable to cause any adverse effect, if they do. We don’t really hear about what an amazing job the immune system does of protecting us.

Most research is focussed on curing/preventing disease, hence “sinking the iceberg”. Of course, it’s impossible to sink an iceberg; part of it will always pop above the surface. Bugs will find a way around the drugs we aim at them and new diseases will emerge from unknown sources. Not to mention the many ways in which the immune system can turn against itself.

The central question I’m interested in is how does the immune system, from its wide repertoire of options, induce the response that is appropriate to the specific pathogen? More specifically, what are the mechanisms that determine which cells are activated and which are switched off? How are friendly stimuli (food, our own cells/antigens, commensal bacteria etc) distinguished from foes?

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