Making couples’ dream of children a reality

Sarah Atkinson, senior clinical embyologist and lab supervisor, working in her laboratory at Bluegrass Fertility Center in Lexington.
Photo by Joseph Rey Au
Sarah Atkinson, senior clinical embyologist and lab supervisor, working in her laboratory at Bluegrass Fertility Center in Lexington. Photo by Joseph Rey Au

Sometimes your dream job is right under your nose and you don't even know it.

That was the case a few years ago for Sarah Atkinson, who was working in the lab as an analyst doing lung cancer research at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, when a path to a new career as an embryologist found her.

Sarah mentioned to a colleague that she'd been watching a show on The Learning Channel about in vitro fertilization and thought it would be a rewarding career.

"I thought you had to have an M.D. to do that," she said, "but when I Googled it, I discovered there was a program at UK."

So Sarah, who earned her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Vanderbilt University, soon enrolled in the in UK's reproductive laboratory science program. And as a university employee, her classes were tuition free.

Upon graduation, Sarah was approached by Bluegrass Fertility Center about a position as an embryologist.

"I didn't even know there was a position opening until I received an email from their embryologist asking for a copy of my (curriculum vitae)," said Sarah, who later learned that the head of her masters program, Dr. Doris Baker, had recommended her.

She was surprised that the center was looking for embryologists with no experience working in a fertility clinic.

"They wanted a blank slate — someone who had the background and the know-how, but who could be trained in their methods," Sarah explained.

Gratifying career

It's now been more than five years since Bluegrass Fertility Center came courting.

Since then, Sarah has risen from clinical embryologist to senior clinical embryologist and lab supervisor. She is gratified to play a crucial role in helping couples have the children they dream of having.

For in vitro fertilization, Bluegrass Fertility Center uses both the standard insemination method, which involves a calculated number of healthy male sperm added to a media drop containing the female's egg.

The more complicated ICSI (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) method, which involves the direct insertion of one single sperm into one single egg, is also offered.

In both cases, Sarah is either performing or directly overseeing the fertilization in the lab.

The mother of a 2-year-old son, Lucas, and newborn daughter, Emelyn, Sarah says she and the staff never get tired of helping women conceive.

"Every day I care about the outcome of my work," she said. "It's a job that will never get old."

Sarah stays in touch with families about the state of their embryos. And when the center's clients do get pregnant, the staff also shares in their joy.

In fact, there are hundreds of pictures of newborns in the office — including pictures of babies as embryos.

"It's really rewarding. The first time you tell a client she is pregnant, there is nothing like it," she said. "You just get goosebumps and tears in your eyes."

Sarah's work has helped to change the lives of many families in Central Kentucky and beyond, but she says her own family benefits as well.

"This is a very family-friendly place to work," said Sarah, who grew up wanting to be a doctor.

After meeting her future husband Will as an undergraduate in Nashville, she began to reevaluate her goals and decided that a science path with more family-friendly hours was a better fit for her.

The No. 1 thing she would like families to know about her field of work is that fertility problems are far more common than most people realize.

"People view it as a shameful secret, but it's not," Sarah said. "It affects about 15 percent of all couples."