The first thing Steven Bensinger, PhD, wants people to know about the burgeoning field of immunology is that it's not a clinical field in and of itself. Instead, it focuses on basic science.
When asked, "What does an immunologist do?" Dr. Bensinger, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA, responds: "We study how the immune system operates in normal health and how it contributes to disease."
For those who want to combine a scientific career with clinical work, Dr. Bensinger suggests pursuing the MD/PhD path. "Lots of medical doctors end up doing immunology in conjunction with a subspecialty," he says. "Some common focus areas are transplant, allergic or infectious disease and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis."
Forging a career
Dr. Bensinger's background is unusual in that he earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree before discovering immunology and completing his PhD. His graduate work focused on transplantation. "I was trained in a transplant lab where we studied cardiology in the context of heart transplants," he says. "My mentor in that lab was a nephrologist who did kidney transplants."
As he was finishing his PhD, Dr. Bensinger became interested in metabolism. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in lipid metabolism at UCLA, he knew he wanted to combine his interests in lipid metabolism and immunology.
"My lab now focuses on immunometabolism and the idea that metabolic and immune processes inform each other constantly at a molecular level," he explains. "When a person becomes infected with a virus, it attempts to replicate by taking over the host's metabolism. We've discovered that the immune system senses that change and turns on a metabolic response to fight the virus. No one would have thought that five years ago."
Great growth ahead for immunology
In general, the future is bright for immunology. "We've recognized that some component of immunity affects every aspect of normal and pathologic physiology," Dr. Bensinger says. "There is much work to do because we still need to understand how the immune system works under normal circumstances, not just in the presence of disease."
Simultaneously, immunologists and other scientists are working to harness the immune system to fight disease. "For autoimmune diseases, we're trying to rein it in. For oncology, we're trying to stimulate it," Dr. Bensinger says. "Some of the biggest discoveries right now are taking place in oncology immunotherapy. Oncologists who are trained in immunology are now extremely important for translational medicine."
What does an immunologist do?
A typical day for Dr. Bensinger varies, but a good portion of it involves reading and writing. "I have to keep up with the literature, review papers from other scientists and write my own papers and grants," he says. "That's why, when students ask me what they should study, I say they must learn how to communicate. All we do in science is based on written and oral communication, and our careers succeed or falter on this basis."
He also teaches immunology to first-year students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Dr. Bensinger holds regular meetings with all the researchers in his lab to discuss their progress. He also attends meetings related to his role as a member of the leadership team of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. "But I'm very lucky that there is such an active intellectual component to my day," he says. "Despite my administrative responsibilities, I really do spend lots of time thinking about science."
By Darcy Lewis