on the job


- As told to Giselle Au-nhien Nguyen

As an embryologi­st, my job is essentiall­y to take care of embryos – the earliest stage of human developmen­t. We form embryos by collecting eggs and sperm, putting them together, growing them and transferri­ng them, and there’s also gamete preservati­on (‘gamete’ is another name for our reproducti­ve cells), because some people come through to freeze their eggs. We facilitate that, and we also do semen analysis. I’m involved in every step of the IVF process: collecting eggs, washing up the sperm, moving them, grading them, transferri­ng them, injecting them, taking cells out – you name it, I’ll do it.

There’s no exact pathway towards this job. I fell into it, really. Originally, I was in scientific research – the problem in Australia is that you have to constantly fight for research funding. And the only way you can get funding is by proving that your research is doing something. You could spend years looking at something, then nothing results from it at all, so you lose your funding. That’s what happened to me. It felt really discouragi­ng, and after, I just kind of scrambled and googled ‘I have a genetics degree, what do I do with it?’ I enrolled for a master’s of clinical embryology. I told myself if I didn’t like the first class I was going to walk, but I was hooked – literally as soon as they started talking about the subject I went, “This is it, I know this is what I was meant to do.”

Initially, a lot of the training was watching people do something, reading the protocol, then practising on mouse embryos. It was mostly just warming up embryos, washing up sperm (where you prepare them for inseminati­on) and giving people checks, then as my time progressed, I started transferri­ng embryos, injecting the eggs with sperm, doing biopsies and taking cells out of actual embryos.

there’s still a massive stigma associated with IVF

On a typical IVF day, I’ll go with the doctor to the surgery. We collect the eggs from the ovaries and they hand them off in special tubes. My job is to search for the eggs among the fluid and get them in a separate tube before they’re taken to the laboratory. We wash them, and during that time, if they have a partner coming in who produces sperm, we’ll have them do so and wash that up, too. (Basically, we separate the sperm from the fluid they’re in and make sure we’re getting the ones that swim best.) Once they’re ready, we move them both into the same dish, with the egg on one side held by one needle and the sperm loaded into another needle. We inject it, then it’s a waiting game. You come in the next day nice and early and check to see whether or not the egg is fertilised.

Most of the time it works, but if it doesn’t, it tends to mean there’s something underlying that we haven’t considered. At that stage we go, “All right, what can we improve on so this doesn’t happen again?” When it does work, there are usually enough fertilised eggs to continue on, and we watch as they develop so we can learn more about how the embryos form.

I’m working in a small clinic in Darwin, so I’m always bumping into someone I know, and I tend to know a lot about their personal lives. I know how many times they’ve come in and I know what their kids’ names are, so when I talk to them on the phone I can say, “How's so-and-so going? You brought this up last time – is that resolved?” They’re not just a number; they’re a person, and they have this entire life that’s not defined by what’s happening when they come in to see us at the clinic.

In fact, I get very closely attached to some of the people who come through, and it breaks my heart when I see someone’s name appear again because it means the process hasn’t worked. When I first started, I used to write a list of their numerical codes on a piece of paper when I did the transfers, because I told myself I was the determinin­g factor for them getting pregnant. If they didn’t get pregnant, my entire day would be shaped by that and I’d go, “Well then, I’m just going to go into the storeroom and stare at a wall.” I would be so upset and take it to heart. These people have so much hope and we’re basically the gatekeeper­s. The job takes a big emotional toll. You just have to learn to dissociate from it a little bit. Once they finish IVF and have the child or are pregnant, a lot of people want to separate from us and what we do, because there’s still a massive stigma associated with IVF. My favourite part of the job, though, is when people actually come through with their baby. One person came and asked for me, and she pointed at me and went to the kid, “Do you remember Hanada?” I said, “I remember when you were this big,” like a tiny little finger. That’s the thing with being an embryologi­st: the last time you see these people is at the transfer, so you put the embryo in, and unless you’re able to keep tabs, you don’t know if it took or not until you see them come through again. When you see the babies, you know the best-case scenario has happened.

I haven’t met a single embryologi­st in my life who hasn’t loved what they do. I absolutely adore it. It’s a job that combines my love of science with my love of talking to people. There’s a lot of extrinsic motivation in that you’ve got a personal investment in it, too – you want these people to be pregnant, and when they are, it’s beautiful and it keeps you going.

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