Jonathan Nambiar - Honours in Immunology

Jonathan Nambiar

Why do honours? If you are looking to improve your career prospects, open the door to further academic study, or simply indulge a passion, then honours is your next step. For many students, honours is an introduction to further academic research with many using it as a pathway to undertake a PhD. Jonathan Nambiar undertook an honours project in immunology and it played a major role in his decision to pursue a career in scientific research. Read all about the highlights of his honours experience.

What was your undergraduate degree?

Bachelor of Medical Science

When did you start thinking about doing honours?

I started thinking about doing an honours degree in my second year of BMedSc, when I realised that I wanted a career in scientific research, rather than pursue a clinical career.

What influenced you to do honours?

I decided to study honours because I was genuinely interested in some areas of medical science, such as immunology and pharmacology, and I wanted to put the theory I had learned into practice. When I entered third year, I wanted to pursue subjects that I was proficient in, and which I really enjoyed. My third year immunology tutor, a lecturer with the Discipline of Infectious Diseases, turned out to be a great mentor, as did students under his research program. My parents were especially supportive of my decision to pursue the honours year. Financial considerations also were important - an Honours qualification is highly regarded not only in academia, as a preamble to a PhD, but also in industry, where laboratory experience and a command of scientific thought processes are highly regarded.

How did you go about finding a supervisor/project?

My third year immunology tutor happened to be offering some interesting projects in the screening of vaccine candidates against tuberculosis. I went to the information sessions, talked to potential supervisors, made my preferences, and was eventually offered a place.

What was your honours project about? What were the results?

My honours project was about trialling a new vaccine for tuberculosis (TB), by trying to improve upon the current vaccine, BCG by genetically engineering the vaccine strain to secrete certain molecules that target important components of the immune system. My project had a strong immunological focus. I gained valuable experience during my time in lab, especially through the guidance of very helpful senior PhD students. The result was that through modifying the route of vaccine administration, we found that the vaccine candidate demonstrated a superior immune response, and conferred better protection than the existing vaccine in pre-clinical animal models of TB.

Can you describe what the honours process was like, from the experimentation stage to writing up your thesis?

It was pretty hard work, and there was a lot of troubleshooting. I learned to be pretty careful and listened to those willing to teach me. I started to get good results about halfway through my honours year. I had to be prepared for some self-imposed early starts, late nights and weekend work! Just to get my thesis on paper. I 'put in the hard yards' and finished my thesis a few days early.

The research was quite thrilling when it worked, and I was pretty excited about doing experiments that few other people in the world would be doing. Honours projects are designed to be novel and innovative - so once the techniques are mastered, expect to be working at the cutting edge.

What were the highlights of your honours year?

  • discovering the vaccine was more protective than BCG (albeit in preliminary experiments)
  • the satisfaction of becoming proficient in doing experiments, and writing a good thesis
  • getting a first class grade and having the opportunity of continuing with my PhD

Did doing honours have any influence on where you’ve ended up after uni?

Definitely. I'm doing a PhD in the same lab - I enjoyed honours so much that I wanted to continue, I realised that scientific research was what I wanted to do.

Do you think honours is for everyone? Who would you recommend it to?

It's not for everyone. I think you need to have a level of independence and determination to succeed. Science is difficult and it's natural that things will not work, but when it does work it's amazing. I'd recommend honours to anyone who's prepared to work very hard, and who likes to read widely and write well.