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The Long and Winding Road to a Career in Reproductive Science

My name is Leighann Nesbeth, I am a 24-year-old aspiring reproductive scientist. I grew up in South East London and have always had a passion for science. I first discovered my interest in reproductive science when my older sister permitted me to be in the room during the birth of my nephew at the delicate age of 15. I knew I wanted a career in science but without any friends or family who had taken this path, I didn’t have any role models to help guide the way. I made the decision to move out of South London to expand my opportunities by studying medical physiology at the University of Nottingham. During this course I was exposed to a breadth of knowledge, which included a module in reproductive medicine. Many who study life science can agree that the area is so broad that some have more questions at the end of their undergraduate degree than what they had upon the commencement. It can be very daunting the idea of deciding to focus on one specific area that many become overwhelmed and end up doing something loosely related to science in general. I know that for myself, most of what was advertised to me as a recent undergraduate was to pursue research or medicine. I also found that scholarships more often targeted the funding of PhD programmes, as opposed to masters degrees.

I graduated with a 1st class BSc and immediately began working in the NHS. I started off as a healthcare assistant then developed into the role of a patient coordinator in cancer services, specifically urology and gynaecology. Witnessing the necessity and the desperation for fertility preservation during these roles, fuelled my longing to further extend my knowledge and understanding of reproductive science; for these reasons I applied to study a MSc in Clinical Embryology at a world-leading University.

A place at Oxford University

I’m not sure how many people in the field would be aware of the steep tuition fees of £40K required to study the MSc in Clinical Embryology at Oxford. It was November 2019 that I began my application and December 2019 when I realised I would not be able to afford the tuition fees, which subsequently lead me to abandon my application. What came next was either a fluke or miracle, when on January 10th 2020, I was travelling to work and my friend asked me how my application was coming along; I proceeded to tell them I was no longer applying because I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition fees and relocate to Oxford from London. My friend encouraged me to still apply because I had no way of knowing what the outcome would be, and to apply and be offered an interview would be accomplishment enough. Feeling inspired and motivated I checked the closing date of the application, and to my surprise it was January 10th at 12 pm GMT.

A lady contacted me through the GoFundMe platform and successfully campaigned for a college at Oxford to take me in as a student and provide me with a bursary

Feeling very sorry for myself I relayed this to my friend and informed them that I was on my way to work, without my personal laptop or documents. Nonetheless my friend replied saying “It is 8:30 am now, you have just over three hours”. And so I got to work, aiming to finish my morning tasks by 10. I took an early lunch from 10 am to 10:30, and completed my application, luckily finding an incomplete draft of my personal statement in my emails along with my previous degree transcripts. With such a rushed application, you can imagine my astonishment at being offered an interview 2 weeks later.

The interview was horrendous. I found myself 2 minutes before the commencement, shouting at my older brother to please stop singing theatre songs at the top of his lungs. Needless to say, this was my first ever virtual interview. I was met with a panel of professionals, who would go on to be the most incredible and supportive teachers and mentors on the course. I was asked so many questions about reproductive history and milestones in the field that due to my nerves I couldn’t answer them; and I was asked scientific questions that I felt the panel helped me to answer by guiding my thought processes. Ultimately, it took all my strength to not cry before ending the skype call. I kept  reminding myself it is an honour in itself to make it to the interview stage and that I have already accomplished something no one in my family or immediate surroundings have. When I received my “congratulations” email 2 weeks later, I was stunned into silence and managed to tell my mum approximately an hour later, asking her to double check that the University meant to send this letter to me. After overcoming this shock, the next feat was raising over £40K in under a year.

Raising £40,000 

Through luck and persistence, and a warning of potentially being suspended, I managed to accumulate all the funds by January 2021. I applied to the Black Heart Foundation, twice. I created a GoFundMe, I spoke on BBC Sounds London radio, and an article was written about me for My London News. A lady contacted me through the GoFundMe platform and successfully campaigned for a college at Oxford to take me in as a student and provide me with a bursary. Another inspirational lady contacted me through the GoFundMe platform and successfully persuaded her company to give me £12K and ran 5 kilometres everyday of September to raise another £4K for me. After witnessing generosity like nothing I’ve seen before, and people rallying behind me to support my dreams with the promise of what I will be for other young black scientists and for what I could add to the future of fertility, I was overwhelmed and motivated to be better than I have ever been before.

I then spent the year being taught, examined, and assessed by experts in the field of reproductive science, receiving lectures from the likes of Dr Jennifer Doudna on CRISPR, Prof Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz on the self-organisation of an embryo, Dr Kevin Coward and Prof Karl Swann on their discovery of PLC zeta and Prof Geraldine Hartshorne on oogenesis. I found myself inspired after each lecture. Although I undertook this Masters degree during the height of the pandemic revealing many challenges and changes to learning techniques, the course staff made it their priority to ensure we as students still had the best possible experience and I still had the opportunity to be taught and practise specialist lab techniques such as ICSI and laser-mediated trophectoderm biopsies. I can honestly say this course was the most difficult thing I have completed in my academic life but it was absolutely worth it, and I would 100% recommend it.

 

Studying at Oxford

 

What next? 

Since successfully completing my degree in October 2021, I have not yet been able to find a role in the field. My searches have revealed limited opportunity for roles as a reproductive science practitioner (a Band 5 role in the NHS) or reproductive lab technician (Band 4); I have also learned that I must be willing to relocate in order to pursue my passion. Once I started networking with other professionals in the field, it was also brought to my attention that the starting salary as a beginner in reproductive science, despite having a masters degree, can be relatively low. There is the 3-year Science Training Programme (STP) which is highly advertised and incredibly competitive, offering on average only 8 places a year, with more than 300 applicants. The STP also requires you to gain another masters degree during the programme, which is described as broad physiology to begin with and later delving into the specifics of embryology. For some this can be viewed as going backwards to move froward as many have already completed a Masters in order to compete with others applying for the STP.

Although my next steps are uncertain and the job hunt continues, I have made the effort to network with multiple reproductive practitioners, andrologists and embryologists. I have also had some luck shadowing in a fertility clinic. This is all due to people’s willingness to help and share knowledge that isn’t readily available. If there is a take home message from what has propelled me so far in my endeavours to build my career in reproductive science, it is the significance of mentors and networking. Not having anyone to ask questions forced me to learn many things along the way, which I suspect I still have a lot of learning to do. But it has also encouraged me to be more vocal with my ambitions and to ask for help which is the essence of networking. Although daunting and some believe only necessary in the corporate world, networking enabled me to study at Oxford, raise funds for tuition fees, gain experience and find support to help me with job applications.

If you have an experience you would like to share with the Reproductive Science community, why not send in your own blog? Contact ARCS for further details arcs@profileproductions.co.uk