Gillian, Trainee Clinical Embryologist, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde

Gillian is a Trainee Clinical Embryologist at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. After starting out as a healthcare science support worker, she undertook a distance-learning master's degree before taking the NES Equivalence Training route to become a Clinical Healthcare Scientist. She is in her final year of training.

Hi, my name is Gillian, I’m a Trainee Clinical Embryologist at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. I started my role here in 2019 undertaking the NES Equivalence Training route, to become a Clinical Healthcare Scientist. I’m currently in my final year of training.

I found out about the healthcare scientist opportunity after I had finished my undergraduate degree in 2015. At this point I knew I wanted to pursue a career as a clinical scientist but didn't have much experience behind me. I contacted a few clinical labs to try and get some experience. In addition, I kept checking the NHSScotland website for upcoming vacancies.

My NHS journey started in 2016 when I became a healthcare scientist support worker for embryology. I had just completed my honours degree in biomedical science and knew that I wanted to become a healthcare scientist but didn't quite know how to progress. The healthcare support worker role was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my skills and understand what I needed to do to progress in the field.

During this time, I was responsible for assisting the clinical scientists in our daily activities, which for embryology included witnessing, culture dish preparation and general laboratory housekeeping. In order to further understand clinical embryology, I started a distance learning master’s degree at the University of Leeds. Once I obtained my master’s degree in 2019, I applied for and was successful in securing the equivalence training position. I knew quite early on at university that I wanted to become a healthcare scientist, instead of going down the research route.

In order to achieve my career goals, I have been very fortunate to work with an amazing team who have always encouraged and inspired me to progress to get to where I am just now. Without their support, guidance and encouragement I don't think I would be where I am today. In addition, I was also successful in applying for the NHS staff bursary, which helped towards the cost of further education. It's been great working for an organisation that really values staff learning and development. Without the NHS staff bursary, I don't think I could have progressed with my master’s degree.

A typical day for us starts in the lab at 8 am. We have daily staff huddles where we go over the workload for the day, and each member of the staff is assigned tasks for the day. We do this huddle by our lab whiteboard which contains all the patient information we need for the day and is critical for communication amongst the team. This ensures that all workload is shared, and we can prioritize our day.

Daily tasks include oocyte retrievals, which is the process of obtaining eggs from the follicular fluid of a patient; sperm preparation, where we prepare partner or donor sperm for fertilizing the eggs; fertilisation checks, where we assess if fertilisation has occurred on patients who had their eggs collected and fertilised the previous day. We also perform embryo grading and embryo transfers, where we assess the development of a patient's embryos and pick the best quality embryo to be replaced into the uterus of the patient. This occurs three to five days after oocyte retrieval. Embryo freezing – which is also called vitrification – occurs where we freeze and store embryos for patients, this can be surplus embryos that won't be replaced into the uterus of a patient, or for cases of fertility preservation. We also perform embryo warming, where we remove embryos from storage, which is minus 196 degrees Celsius, and then rapidly warm them to room temperature before they're replaced back into the uterus of the patient.

In the afternoons, we also perform IVF [in vitro fertilisation] and ICSI [intracytoplasmic sperm injection], which are methods of fertilizing the eggs using the sperm. ICSI involves the injection of a single sperm directly into the egg, whereas with IVF eggs are cultured with the sperm, and the sperm swim towards the eggs to attempt fertilization. We also perform oocyte and sperm freezing, where we store eggs or sperm for fertility preservation.

We also perform diagnostic semen analysis, where we assess the sperm parameters and suitability for treatment or storage and patient consults, where we will discuss with the patient their fertility treatment from a lab perspective and give them the opportunity to ask questions. We also perform multi-disciplinary team meetings with nursing and medical staff as we are a multi-disciplinary team and it's important for communication between the team.

As an embryologist the most important skills for us to do our job is technical skills and being meticulous in our attention to detail, being flexible and adaptable to situations that arise in the laboratory. In addition, we need to have really good and clear communication, as we're not just communicating with other scientists in the lab but also with the multidisciplinary team, and also patients, so it's really important that we have good communication skills.

In addition, with embryology we are helping patients start a family or preserve their fertility. This can be a really tough and emotional journey for the patients, so empathy and compassion are really important in supporting the needs of our patients.

As an embryologist the main responsibilities in our role is performing fertility treatment and ensuring that the patient's sperm, eggs and embryos remain safe in the lab. Sperm, eggs and embryos are really incredibly precious for our patients and so it's a great responsibility for us to keep them safe, and we want to do everything we can to keep them safe. In order to do this, we ensure we have the correct equipment for optimal development, that our equipment is appropriately validated and serviced, and that all our skills, knowledge and procedures remain up to date. This is incredibly important in the field of reproductive sciences as it is constantly advancing.

We also want to ensure that we're compliant with our regulatory body which is the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and that we're adhering to all the correct legislation and codes of practice for embryologists.

In the lab, we organize our time through the use of our whiteboard. On that we know exactly what we have to do for the day, and all the communication that we need. Most of the tasks in the lab are time sensitive so we know the time frame that we have to complete a task in. For example, if my task was oocyte retrievals, I know that each patient has a time slot, I have to stick to that time slot so as not to affect the doctor and nursing team who are performing the egg collection. In addition, we want to perform in the correct time frame so as to minimise any hazard to the eggs.

Before I started my job, I didn't know a lot about healthcare science. When I was at university, I knew about healthcare science but not how broad the field was and how many different disciplines exist. I didn't really know a great deal about embryology until I got the role of healthcare scientist support worker and quickly realized that this was the field I wanted to work in and pursue, and I became quite passionate about it.

What I like most about my job is being able to help people and knowing we're giving our patients the chance of creating a family and having a baby. I really enjoy being a scientist but also being able to have that patient contact and speak to our patients, it’s a really rewarding part of my job.

The part I find most challenging is delivering bad news. Occasionally we have to let our patients know that their treatment hasn't been successful. This can be through field fertilization, pure embryo development, or no embryo suitable for transfer or storage. It's difficult to give that news to a patient, but our main priority is ensuring the patient’s supported through this journey. That can be from something as simple as returning a call back later on, once they have the chance to process the news or referring them to our dedicated fertility councillors.

Advice I would give to anyone thinking about applying for a role in healthcare science would be to try and get any experience you can behind you. For embryology this can be volunteering at clinics, getting in touch with clinics and asking to observe what they do, asking questions about the field and trying to further your knowledge of the field. It's a really wonderful opportunity to work with the NHS and if you're passionate about being a healthcare scientist then I would suggest try and get some experience behind you.

My future career plan is to continue to develop my knowledge and skills for being a clinical embryologist. As I’m in my final year of training just now, my immediate plan is to finish my training and to develop my portfolio, to gain state registration as a clinical embryologist and healthcare scientist. Throughout my career, I think I’ll continue to develop my skills and knowledge in the field in order to provide the best possible patient care that I can.

I think people would be surprised by seeing the embryos develop in the lab, it's a really amazing thing to see the process of an egg being fertilized and develop into an embryo. Within the lab we always comment how beautiful the embryos can be, it's lovely when you see something like that, and I think if anybody came into the lab they would be really surprised and in awe of that development. In addition, I think people would also be surprised by how different every sperm, egg and embryo can be. The variety we see in the lab is amazing and I think people would think ‘Oh, it's just sperm and eggs’, but they really are all different and it's wonderful to see.


How did you find out about the healthcare science opportunity?

I found out about the healthcare scientist opportunity after I had finished my undergraduate degree in 2015. At this point I knew I wanted to pursue a career as a clinical scientist but didn't have much experience behind me. I contacted a few clinical labs to try and get some experience. In addition, I kept checking the NHSScotland website for upcoming vacancies.

Where did your NHS journey start?

My NHS journey started in 2016 when I became a healthcare scientist support worker for embryology. I had just completed my honours degree in biomedical science and knew that I wanted to become a healthcare scientist but didn't quite know how to progress. The healthcare support worker role was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my skills and understand what I needed to do to progress in the field.

To further understand clinical embryology, I started a distance learning master’s degree at the University of Leeds. I knew quite early on at university that I wanted to become a healthcare scientist, instead of going down the research route.

What helped you to achieve your career goals?

I have been very fortunate to work with an amazing team who have always encouraged and inspired me to progress to get to where I am just now. Without their support, guidance and encouragement I don't think I would be where I am today.

In addition, I was also successful in applying for the NHS staff bursary, which helped towards the cost of further education. It's been great working for an organisation that really values staff learning and development. Without the NHS staff bursary, I don't think I could have progressed with my master’s degree.

Tell us a typical day as an embryologist

A typical day for us starts in the lab at 8 am. We have daily staff huddles where we go over the workload for the day, and each member of the staff is assigned tasks for the day.

Daily tasks include:

  • oocyte retrievals - which is the process of obtaining eggs from the follicular fluid of a patient
  • sperm preparation - where we prepare partner or donor sperm for fertilizing the eggs
  • fertilisation checks - where we assess if fertilisation has occurred on patients who have had their eggs collected and fertilised
  • embryo grading and embryo transfers - where we assess the development of a patient's embryos and pick the best quality embryo to be replaced into the uterus of the patient
  • embryo freezing (also called vitrification) - where we freeze and store embryos for patients, either surplus embryos or for cases of fertility preservation
  • embryo warming - where we remove embryos from storage and rapidly warm them to room temperature before they're replaced back into the uterus of the patient

In the afternoons, we perform in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), which are methods of fertilizing the eggs using the sperm. ICSI involves the injection of a single sperm directly into the egg, whereas with IVF eggs are cultured with the sperm, and the sperm swim towards the eggs to attempt fertilization.

We also perform diagnostic semen analysis, where we assess the sperm parameters and suitability for treatment or storage.

What are the most important skills for you to do your job well?

As an embryologist the most important skills for us to do our job are our technical skills and our attention to detail, being flexible and adaptable to situations that arise in the laboratory. In addition, we need to have good and clear communication, as we're not just communicating with other scientists in the lab but also with the multidisciplinary team and patients, so it's important that we have good communication skills.

In addition, with embryology we are helping patients start a family or preserve their fertility. This can be a tough and emotional journey for the patients, so empathy and compassion are important in supporting the needs of our patients.

What are the main responsibilities in your role?

The main responsibilities in my role are performing fertility treatment and ensuring that the patient's sperm, eggs and embryos remain safe in the lab. Sperm, eggs and embryos are incredibly precious for our patients and so it's a great responsibility for us to keep them safe. To do this, we ensure we have the correct equipment for optimal development, that our equipment is appropriately validated and serviced, and that all our skills, knowledge and procedures remain up to date. This is incredibly important in the field of reproductive sciences as it is constantly advancing.

Did you know a lot about healthcare science before you started?

Before I started my job, I didn't know a lot about healthcare science. When I was at university, I knew about healthcare science but not how broad the field was and how many different disciplines exist. I didn't really know a great deal about embryology until I got the role of healthcare scientist support worker and quickly realized that this was the field I wanted to work in and pursue, and I became quite passionate about it.

What do you like most about your job?

What I like most about my job is being able to help people and knowing we're giving our patients the chance of creating a family and having a baby. I really enjoy being a scientist but also being able to have that patient contact and speak to our patients is a really rewarding part of my job.

What parts of your job do you find the most challenging?

The part I find most challenging is delivering bad news. Occasionally we must let our patients know that their treatment hasn't been successful. It's difficult to give that news to a patient, but our main priority is ensuring the patient’s supported through this journey.

What advice would you give to others thinking about applying for a role in healthcare science with the NHS?

I would advise people to try and get any experience you can behind you. For embryology this can be volunteering at clinics, getting in touch with clinics and asking to observe what they do, asking questions about the field and trying to further your knowledge of the field. It's a wonderful opportunity to work with the NHS and if you're passionate about being a healthcare scientist then I would suggest try and get some experience behind you.

Is there anything you think would surprise people about your role?

I think people would be surprised by seeing the embryos develop in the lab. It's an amazing thing to see the process of an egg being fertilized and develop into an embryo. Within the lab we always comment how beautiful the embryos can be, it's lovely when you see something like that, and I think if anybody came into the lab they would be really surprised and in awe of that development.