We are always on the hunt for amazing, breakthrough research that our customers are conducting. Rachel McBrinn PhD(c) working at Abertay University Research Laboratories is no exception. She has fully dedicated herself to researching the cause of male infertility and hopes that the more research there is on the subject, the more awareness that is brought to it.
As she mentions in the interview below, “Infertility is still quite a taboo subject within the male community. With more awareness comes more support.”
However, before becoming a research scientist in a groundbreaking field, Rachel had other dreams.
“I originally wanted to be a PE teacher, I played field hockey growing up and still do and play for Dundee Wanderers.” However, an amazing teacher helped her gain interest in another field, “while at school I had an incredible chemistry teacher and she made the classes so enjoyable and that was the turning point for me, so I investigated my options in science.”
Luckily Rachel stayed with science and is now conducting research that is not only exceptionally relevant but could help an entire community of men struggling with this problem.
According to a recent Mayo Clinic study, up to 15 percent of couples are infertile, and in over a third of these couples, male infertility plays a role.
We desperately wanted to learn more about what Rachel was doing in her lab. So we borrowed some of her time to ask her questions ranging from details of her research to what it’s like working in Abertay University Research Laboratories to where she sees the future of male infertility research going. Read on to learn more!
- From what I gather, you work primarily with male infertility research. What was it about the area of study that led you towards this focus? What makes you want to continue your work in it?
I’m in my final year of my PhD at Abertay University focusing on male infertility specifically the intracellular working of normal and dysfunctional sperm. I studied Biomedical Science and during my 3rd year, I realized I didn’t have a clear career path in which I wanted to go down. There happened to be a fertility related project coming up that summer with my now supervisor and a pretty big role model of mine, Dr. Sean Brown (senior lecturer and sperm expert based at the university). I was allocated to the project and it was great.
Fertility isn’t black and white and even at that point I would say I was naive and only associated fertility problems with the female as a lot of the time that is what is portrayed on social media. Now that I’m in this area, I know that is not the case and men need more options when it comes to their fertility, and I feel like it’s a place where you can make a real difference.
There is so much to learn and it’s a good reason to get out of bed in the morning and get to work.
I think I just found my niche, and when the PhD came up I knew this is all I wanted to do. So, I left my job as a research scientist and went back to university.
- What is it that you are attempting to achieve or find in your research?
We have a saying in our lab that “There is no drug a man can take to improve his fertility”. Unfortunately, this is the case, and it really comes down to the fact that there’s such a poor understanding of how sperm functions. Research into this is at a pivotal stage and there is a clear need to start piecing together the puzzle and the understanding of this will allow the expansion of treatment options for males which currently can only rely on ICSI (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) assisted reproductive treatment. My hope is that my research aids the understanding of the intracellular workings of sperm through the identification and quantification of analytes associated with sperm motility and measuring the effects of pharmacological agents has on this.
- Other than finding the treatment/solution, what do you think is next for the world of male infertility?
Sperm counts in the Western world have halved in the past 40 years and are continuously declining. Approximately 50% of male infertility issues are attributed to asthenozoospermia (reduced/low sperm motility) with no known cause, and without a cause there’s a shortfall in a treatment or solution. I think based on this the future for male infertility is quite bleak unless active research in the area is pursued and employed. Advancing from this and because sperm are highly specialized cells as well as each patient responding differently to drugs, I believe that treatment options should become more individualized, and meet the individual patient need, which will help us understand the situation and offer a viable alternative.
Infertility is still quite a taboo subject within the male community. With more awareness comes more support and this could help male sufferers show that they are not alone, rather than the issue being swept under the carpet.
- Let’s say you find the end-all-be-all treatment to male infertility, what area of research would you like to tackle next? And why would that be your next step?
This is a really hard question, considering how much I love the area of research that I’m in. I think the next big thing I would like to get into is demographic analysis on the infertility front and look at various regions throughout the globe and try to pinpoint the factors that may be causing a decline in sperm motility. I would love to find a common denominator to the infertility problem (if that is possible) and be involved in implementing strategies and support to improve it.
- What is the most interesting aspect of your job? Essentially, a day or moment in the lab that would make other scientists jealous!
I would say an interesting aspect of my job role is that I’m interdisciplinary, whilst I’m primarily based at Abertay University I work closely with Professor Christopher Barratt (Head of Reproductive Medicine), Dr. Sarah Martins Da Silva (consultant obstetrician and gynecologist) and their research group based in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. At Abertay, I work with Dr. Joanna Fraser (lecturer in Forensics) and I pick her analytical brain. For me this is a unique experience to be able to work with a range of experts in my field each day.
- How would you best describe Abertay University Research labs?
Abertay University is at the forefront of scientific research, within the past two years Abertay has unveiled a £3.5 million construction of the research labs which I frequently use to carry out solid phase extraction.
The labs are designed to be multipurpose so just about any scientific field from biomedical science, forensic to food science can benefit from them, as well as serving as teaching laboratories during term time. I’m based in the chemical lab, a temperature-controlled room which houses my HPLC equipment and is fitted with everything I need to set up and run my experiments.
- After you have completed your PhD work, where would be your dream lab to work in?
I love the research and development side when working with chromatography systems (FPLC, HPLC, LC-MS etc.). Ideally, my dream lab to work in would be Phenomenex within chromatography systems, automation, assays or new platforms. Specifically, I want to be a specialist when it comes to producing a system for the identification of compounds or separation science for tricky analytes and help advance scientific research and ultimately patient care.
- What role does SPE and HPLC (separation sciences) play as you are conducting your research?
Firstly, my research would not be possible without HPLC. With assessing intracellular molecules that promote sperm cell motility, I needed an automated system with good precision, that’s high throughput but also versatile that would allow me to adjust my methods. HPLC allows me to do all of the above, as well as maintaining cost, which is a key factor for any research student. SPE has really been the icing on the cake for my methodology development as it’s helped me clean up my samples and preserve my column by removing unwanted proteins and phospholipids.
- What Phenomenex products have you used recently? And which of those products would you use again and tell your colleagues about?
There’s three things I couldn’t live without, my LC Syngeri™ Fusion-RP (reverse phase) column, SPE (solid phase extraction) manifold (makes my life a trillion times easier) and Strata®-X-AW (weak anion mixed mode phase) tubes to filter and purify my analytes of interest. Out of all of these products that I use each day, I would definitely recommend the column when working with the human extracts and highly polar compounds, purely because of the versatility and its compatibility with a range of mobile phases.
- How has Phenomenex aided you in your research in male infertility?
Phenomenex has aided my research greatly, firstly because of the quality of the equipment, but also because of the team of specialists that have been on hand for any methodology queries. During my time, I’ve worked with Dr. Richard McAllister from Phenomenex UK who has been amazing and even stopped by the university for a visit!
- Now for the important question of all! Phenomenex has fully embraced the nerd culture and live the NerdLife™ to its fullest potential. Would you consider yourself a part of this life style—the nerd life style?
Absolutely haha! Nerdlife all the way!