Clinical Embryology and Assisted Reproduction Technology MSc Student

Kevin Leandro Sandi

After an extensive search for and comparison of postgraduate degrees around the globe, the Clinical Embryology and Assisted Reproduction Technology MSc course offered by the University of Leeds proved to be the one that best condensed in one academic year the key theoretical and practical components pertaining the underpinning science and hands-on skills required to pursue a post as a clinical embryologist. Importantly, the course, unlike other similar courses elsewhere offered dedicated modules to the areas of IVF and embryo culture, micromanipulation, cryopreservation, and law and ethics for embryologists. 

The progression of contents covered by the theoretical modules provided a solid foundation regarding the basic science which the current applications of clinical embryology and ART are based. Likewise, the laboratory sessions started early on during the course and continued throughout the course, following a coherent and orderly series of practical’s that seamlessly increased in technical complexity, thereby allowing for sufficient time to gain confidence and dexterity at them. The different assessment methods used in the modules (essays, reflective logs, laboratory design group project) enhanced the learning experience and prepared me well for the written examinations and for the write up and presentation of the research project. 

The lectures delivered by experts in their fields, such as those given by guests Dr Kay Elder, Dr Siobhan Sen Gupta and Professor Helen Picton, as well as the numerous lectures throughout the course delivered by Dr Matthew Cotterill, who has both experience in the research and clinical areas of embryology and ART, elevated the quality of teaching of the course. Another highlight was the group project, in which fictitious IVF clinic was devised in its entirety (from floorplan to construction materials and equipment). This assignment fully immersed me in a rather important facet of clinical embryologists, as the peculiarities and lability of human gametes and embryos demand a careful design and hence the active involvement of clinical embryologist. As a matter of fact, this project has been of utmost utility in my current job, given the limited experience in my home country at setting up new IVF units.

The extensive self-directed learning component of the course demanded a high level of commitment and self-discipline. This, as well as the predominately essay-based format of examinations, were the greatest challenges.

The project examined the impact of microfluidic culture on mouse embryo quality. It involved thawing mouse embryos and segregating them for culture under standard conditions (microdrop culture; ie controls) and utilising a novel microfluidic devise (test group). The impact of the later was assessed by comparing carbohydrate utilisation profiles of blastocysts (late pre-implantation embryos) obtained by both strategies by microfluorometric assays, as well as an in vitro surrogate for embryo implantation, whereby hatched blastocysts attach to dishes coated with fibronectin. 

Since my return to Costa Rica, I have been involved in the planning of the first IVF unit run by the Social Security Fund of Costa Rica (CCSS), which is due to open mid-2019. I am most looking forward to participating in the first IVF cycles at our brand-new clinic and being part of a new chapter in ART in my country.

The research project gave me more confidence and dexterity at the executive of essential tasks carried out by clinical embryologists, such as media preparation, culture dish set-up, thawing and handling of embryos, and embryo grading. Furthermore, the project enabled me to integrate and hone many other skills, such as data analysis, scientific writing, and concise oral presentation of results utilising academic conventions, all of which are needed to assume – besides the mere technical work – the professional role of a scientist within an IVF unit.

Facilities were of a very high quality. The setup of workstations, environmental conditions (eg dimmed lighting), the assortment of specialised equipment (eg micromanipulators, mini benchtop incubators, laminar flow cabinets, strippers etc) as well as the various consumables and reagents especially devised for embryo culture, enabled me to acquire a better grasp of the fundamental points of IVF laboratory work, which I intend to apply in the near future.  Libraries were easy to reach and available for independent and group study sessions at extended hours. Printers were also spread across the multiple libraries and were simple to use.

The University of Leeds provided not only the most comprehensive study course but also the most efficient, student-friendly, and informative process of application. The academic faculty and the admin staff closely followed my application and quickly responded to emails and all my queries. The various documents I needed from the University to continue with my visa application and with the sponsorship from my employers were sent expeditiously. Additionally, the University of Leeds offered dedicated residences for international postgraduate students, which are conveniently located next to campus and at a short walking distance from the city centre, as well as superb fitness facilities and a large number of libraries.

I enjoyed the content and quality of the theoretical sessions, as well as the well organised progression of laboratory practicals. At the end of the course, I felt more confident at my overall performance as a student and as a scientist in ART. Besides the academic aspect of my time at the university, I truly enjoyed the short trips I attended. The short commute by train to London and to other major cities, such as Manchester and Liverpool, made short visits easy to fit within my timetable.

I would recommend prospect students to engage fully in the numerous options of clubs/societies, as they help to expand ones social circle to free up the mind from stress related to the term. Make the most out of your time, both academically and socially. The teaching faculty is more than willing to help you out to achieve your goals and improve your skills, but it is your responsibility to ask for feedback and doing the hard work. Pace yourself well to seize your time and the many advantages the university offers: state-of-the-art labs, libraries, brilliant teaching staff, plenty of clubs/societies, superb fitness facilities, and so much more.

I was sponsored by the Costa Rican Social Security Fund to complete my Master’s Degree at Leeds. The commencement of operations of the ART unit is due on July 2019, for which many of the theoretical and hands-on skills learned during the course have been essential. Moreover, my personal tutor for the course Professor Helen Picton, Kindly contacted experts in clinical embryology, thereby broadly expanding my professional network. Many of them agreed to receiving me in their ART labs for shadowing visits, and have also provided uninterrupted long-distance feedback and invaluable during these past months.

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