Q&A with embryologists Kezia Emeny-Smith and Erin Kelley.
Advancements in the IVF laboratory have helped more and more patients from Denver and all across the U.S. overcome infertility. From ICSI to extended embryo culture and PGT-A to frozen embryo transfer, changes in laboratory processes and technology have increased the chance of success for hopeful parents. However, different IVF centers and laboratories generate different outcomes and use different technologies and procedures often.
The IVF lab environment can be a critical differentiator for new patients to consider when choosing infertility care or looking for a second opinion. To help understand what makes the IVF laboratory team so special and successful at Conceptions, we spoke with two embryologists from the Conceptions team, Kezia Emeny-Smith, and Erin Kelley to get the insider’s scoop and what it takes to be an embryologist and how reproductive medicine continues to improve.
Who or what made you interested in becoming an embryologist?
Kezia: I was fortunate enough to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where our motto was “learn by doing” and that truly was my experience there. As an Animal Science undergrad, I always thought I’d end up becoming a veterinarian but once I started taking laboratory courses, everything changed. I was able to partake in assisted insemination enterprises, bovine/equine embryology courses, and a variety of other physiology/endocrinology courses. I fell in love with the field of reproductive medicine and quickly decided working in a human IVF lab was my goal.
Erin: I also discovered a love for reproductive physiology in college. I took a human reproductive physiology class, and at the time, I didn’t even know that embryology existed or that it was a career option for me. I just found it fascinating, and it became a passion for me.
What do you like the most about the work as an embryologist?
KES: The thing I like most about being an embryologist is getting to help people build their families and sharing in their joy when they have success. I love that it is a good mix of lab work and patient contact, we get to be hands-on providing updates and answering any questions our patients might have. It’s a perfectionist’s dream job.
EK: While there are many aspects of the work I enjoy, the one thing that continues to excite me is that there is always something new to learn. The field itself is ever-evolving and we still have so many scientific advancements ahead of us. Every patient is different, and every embryo is different, and this work constantly challenges you to think critically and optimize for the best clinical outcome possible. Definitely very stressful, but agreed, the outcomes are very rewarding.
What’s been one of the more exciting scientific advancements in the field for you?
KES: I would say the shift from oocyte cryopreservation being in the research stage to now being utilized in a clinical setting with improved outcomes. This has allowed patients to have a greater chance of success in the future when utilizing their frozen oocytes and has allowed large donor egg banks to offer frozen donor oocytes to intended parents unable to conceive using their own gametes.
EK: Right, the advancements in genetic testing are very exciting. Not only are we able to screen embryos for whole chromosome abnormalities but we are able to do single gene testing in cases where both partners are known carriers. That means we can tell which embryos are carriers of or will be affected by certain genetic disorders. Being able to tell someone we can screen embryos for BRCA I and BRCA II is awesome.
How often do you think about the hopeful parents on the other side of the lab wall?
KES: Every single day. The embryologists here at Conceptions call all patients with their lab updates, so it gives us the opportunity to connect with our hopeful moms/dads on a daily basis. It always warms our hearts when we hear how thankful they are for our help in achieving their goals of starting a family.
EK: Same, every day we get to talk to our patients. I think we can agree that we want the best for our patients and want their dreams of creating a family to come true, and we want to be the people to help them do that. We understand how stressful and emotional this process is and we feel the highs and lows along with them.
What do you want patients to know about the embryologists working on their care?
KES: We want our patients to know that we are on their team. We are rooting for their embryos and their success every day. We are here for them, and they can always get in contact with us if they have any questions.
EK: Like what was said earlier, this really is a perfectionist’s dream job. We are absolute perfectionists. We are extremely thorough and take all patients’ care very seriously. We are compassionate and committed to the best outcome possible. We frequently huddle together and brainstorm ways to improve outcomes and are always learning from one another. We also stay connected with the physicians so we can have a 360 approach to each patient’s care.
How does the Conceptions embryology team work together?
KES: Embryologists are very type A and thrive off of efficiency and organization- hence, perfectionism. We all kind of know what each other is doing for the day and frequently rotate tasks so we all maintain proficiency in all lab techniques.
EK: We have a strong team at Conceptions; we look out for each other and support each other and our patients. One of the things that makes us a great team is our shared work ethic. We all like to be organized and efficient, which makes for a great workflow and safety. We also like to make it a fun environment, we always have music playing in the lab and we like to joke around with each other.
KES: And luckily, we are all country music fans too, so we never argue about what music station to play!
What makes the Conceptions IVF lab one of the best in Colorado and the U.S.?
KES: We strive to always keep things tight by constantly evaluating our statistics/outcomes and staying up to date with the latest and greatest technologies in our field. We currently utilize an RFID witnessing system called RI Witness and store specimens in a fully automated/monitored cryostorage tank called TMRW Life Sciences. Having these technologies ensures all of our patients are receiving the highest quality of care available, which makes the Conceptions IVF lab stand out among the rest.
EK: Our lab is also privately owned. This gives us more flexibility and autonomy than many of the larger corporations that own centers all over the U.S. We also utilize the best equipment and technology so that we can provide the safest environment for our patient’s eggs and embryos.
Do you think that all IVF labs are the same in the US?
KES: No. One interesting thing about our field is while all labs/embryologists perform many of the same procedures such as ICSI, all of us have different ways of doing it. There are a variety of different incubators, culture media, embryo freeze devices, brands of microscopes, etc. It is always fun to connect with peers and troubleshoot/discuss as there is no single way to do things, which makes labs unique from one another.
EK: No, every lab is different. There can be a lot of differences in people, equipment, techniques, and protocols. Success rates can be a good indicator of lab quality. Patients should visit SART.org or CDC.org to look at IVF success rates in their area. These success rates have a direct connection to the quality of the lab.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an embryologist?
KES: I would open an animal shelter for dogs or start a therapeutic horse-riding program. I would also complete a yoga teacher training course.
EK: That’s awesome. Honestly, if I weren’t an embryologist, I would probably want to do something where I got to travel a lot for work.
Favorite book, movie, band, or restaurant?
KES: Any book by Colleen Hoover. I can finish pretty much any book by her in a single day!
EK: I love to read! Favorite books: – All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, and Harry Potter, of course!
Having trouble getting pregnant or staying pregnant? Looking for an egg donor or surrogate to help build your family? We can help. Connect with the fertility specialists at Conceptions Reproductive Associates of Colorado. Click here to get started.