Scientific Lives: Cliona Rooney, Ph.D.

by Cliona Rooney

January, 2006


Immunology is as much an art as a science: visual in its concepts, philosophical in its interpretations, and rather beautiful in its truths.

It remains a gloriously unpredictable detective novel, with multiple subplots that, when resolved, reveal still more subplots. Characters interact with one another in diverse ways to produce allergy, inflammation, and other immune responses. After the golden age of immunization in the early twentieth century, interest in immunology lessened for many decades, but powerful new tools and therapies are now bringing it back to center stage in medical research.

With improved imaging systems, we can now see the immunological cast of characters interacting in front of our eyes, rather than mentally reconstructing their activities from indirect experiments. I am filled with wonder when I actually watch a T cell, one of the body’s immune cells, bustling around inquisitively until finally it finds a tumor cell in the crowd, latches on firmly, and remorselessly kills its target. We can even infuse T cells into a mouse and, with sophisticated imaging techniques, watch them travel to a tumor, where we can see them multiply as the tumor shrinks. Immunologists are beginning to apply these techniques safely and effectively to patients with catastrophic diseases.

How and why did I choose this fascinating and rewarding career? I was given the opportunity to study immunology at Cambridge University, where I was determined to succeed, but those three years of graduate school were probably the hardest of my life.

I found the field of immunology complex, full of weird terminology and intimidatingly brilliant people, who ate, slept, and talked—endlessly talked—immunological ideas, experiments, and interpretations. Ultimately it was worth the struggle and has given me a career that is demanding but always interesting, takes me around the world, and introduces me to intelligent people from diverse backgrounds.

Although I rarely perform experiments anymore, I rejoice in the findings of my graduate and postdoctoral students, who daily bring me new insights and new findings to digest and analyze. And while the piles of paperwork and the constant need to publish research can be oppressive at times, I wouldn’t change a thing about my career choice.