Adam Burnley, 39, is an embryologist at theBourn Hall Clinic in Cambridgeshire. It was founded by the IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Brown, who were responsible for the conception of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby
What do you actually do?
Embryologists are scientists involved in fertility treatment and reproductive research. We collect eggs, assess and prepare sperm samples from partners, and inject eggs with sperm. We also do very detailed procedures where we select a single sperm to fertilise an egg. Eggs are harvested and inseminated on the same day, and the following day we look for signs of fertilisation.
Patients tend to be referred to the clinic by their GP or a fertility specialist, or self-refer after seeing our website. We're scientists, not medical doctors, but we do discuss treatments with patients, explaining success rates and statistics.
What's a typical day like?
There's a team of six embryologists in the lab, working from 8am to 4pm. IVF treatment works to a strict timeline. Procedures must be done at a certain time, and sometimes we have to assess the development of 20 embryos by 10am. Each embryologist is assigned a task, such as freezing or thawing embryos, collecting eggs, preparing sperm samples. There are many regulations, so I make sure we record everything we do, and sign off each procedure. There's a good deal of paperwork, and I also have to write to patients about billing, or to let them know the date we legally must dispose of their embryos.
What's the best thing about it?
Sometimes people who have had fertility treatment at the clinic send us lovely cards with pictures of their children. It's very rewarding when that does happen, because we don't often get to see the result of our work, as we're involved so early on. When we work with the embryos, they are tiny – the size of a pinprick – and it takes two weeks after replacing them before you can even do a pregnancy test.
Are there any downsides?
Like most IVF clinics, we need to be open pretty much all of the time. There needs to be an embryologist always available to check how the embryos are developing, so we have to work about one in three weekends. But we do get days off to compensate.
What skills do you need to do the job well?
You need good hand-eye coordination. A lot of procedures are still done by hand, using a glass pipette and very small instruments, so a steady hand is crucial. Attention to detail is also key. You need to be methodical about dating and timing everything very precisely. You should have a solid scientific background – at least a degree in life sciences – and then you must work towards being state-registered, which takes two to four years of training on the job.
Finally, you have to constantly remind yourself how important what you're doing is to the patients as individuals, and try to have empathy with what they're going through.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to be an embryologist?
Working in a lab can be quite claustrophobic. We wear hats and masks, and work all day within 10 feet of our colleagues, under controlled conditions. So it's worth spending a couple of days in an embryology lab to see if you like it, before you commit to a specialised degree. If you've done an MSc in embryology, then decide you don't like the job, the skills you'll have learnt in your degree won't be particularly transferable to other careers. A lot of labs are open to students, so it's worth getting some work experience first.
What's the salary and career path like?
There's a huge difference in salaries at different clinics, depending on whether they are NHS or private. As a trainee embryologist, you might earn around £20,000 a year – starting salaries seem to hover between £17,000 and £28,000 a year. You start as a trainee, then become an embryologist, then a senior embryologist. Senior scientists tend to go into managerial roles. If you work at a hospital or university, you could go into research.
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