This Book’s a Keeper

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Reading immunology on the front porch on a beautiful day is rather pleasant.

A few days ago, I wrote about some books I *might* be using during my first year in medical school. I already know this one is a keeper: How the Immune System Works, by Lauren Sompayrac (Wiley-Blackwell).

Before I talk about this book, let me take a step back. It’s said (by people more knowledgeable than I am) that in addition to the required basic science classes in college, there are three upper-division courses that may help you in medical school: genetics, biochemistry, and immunology. I’ve taken genetics and biochemistry, and done well in both. But immunology is a world I know nothing about. To put it bluntly: I didn’t know my neutrophils from my natural killer cells (which is embarrassing, if you know anything about the subject).

Enter Lauren Sompayrac’s book, which is a “big picture” view of immuno designed to prepare you for more a complex course by showing how parts of the immune system act and interact at a very basic level. At only 132 pages of actual chapter material, it’s a short read. The writing is entertaining, with plenty of analogies and quips thrown in. From now on, when I think of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) – a molecule that essentially serves as a billboard to tell what’s going on either inside or outside the cell it’s attached to – I will think of a hot dog bun. (Yes, there is a photo of a hot dog bun in the book. It works.) There are also plenty of astounding facts too which keep me engaged with the general topic. (Did you know that the area covered by the mucous membranes lining our digestive, respiratory, and reporductive tracts – part of our body’s perimeter that needs defended – measures about 400 square meters? That’s two tennis courts! Immune cells have to patrol all that!)

My goal isn’t to master the immune system before medical school. That’s what medical school is for. But since I have exactly zero background in this, I want to develop a basic understanding of the players before I’m expected to know the whole playbook.