How a young scientist could help couples struggling to conceive

8 March 2018
Inspired by her own struggles to fall pregnant, Dr Angela Crean hopes to reduce medicine's reliance on IVF. Her research into reproduction shifts the focus from females to males.
Dr Angela Crean with her son, Parker.

Dr Angela Crean with her son, Parker.

Not so long ago, Dr Angela Crean was on the verge of walking away from the career she loved. She'd given all she had to her PhD in animal reproduction but was struggling to find a long-term job. Opportunities for young scientists are so scarce in Australia that she was ready to swap her research dreams for a career in business.

"You throw your whole life and your whole passion into your research, then you hit this roadblock," she says. "When you can't get a job, no matter how good you are, you think, 'Well, if nobody else believes in what I'm doing, why am I killing myself trying to do it?'"

A life-changing scholarship

Dr Crean in the lab

Dr Crean in the lab

She was just about ready to give up when she heard about a scholarship for postdoctoral research at the University of Sydney's School of Veterinary Science. It was her last chance.

When the news came that her application had been successful, she burst into tears. "It was such a shock that somebody else could believe in me that much," she says. "It gave me the confidence to say, 'Well, now I have to be worthy of this gift'."

The gift that saved Dr Crean's career was a bequest from the late Mabs Melville to the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. Melville's $5.8 million donation allowed the school to invest in a number of positions for early-career researchers. For Dr Crean, now 36, winning the Mabs Melville scholarship marked the beginning of a spectacular rise that has seen her work applauded internationally. In 2016, she won the $25,000 L'Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship. The following year, she took out the prestigious Young Tall Poppy Science Award in NSW.

Research in reproduction

These accolades reflect the importance of Dr Crean's research – and its potential to change lives. Though her focus has been on animal reproduction, shifting from sea creatures to flies to sheep over the course of her career, she hopes one day her work will help human couples struggling with infertility.

It's a problem she understands intimately. When she and her husband, Joel, started thinking about having children, she was in her early 30s. After six months of trying to fall pregnant without success, the advice from fertility experts was to try IVF. She asked about other options and was met with blank looks.

"It seemed to me that IVF shouldn't have been the first port of call," she says. "There are a lot of side effects and it's hard work for the female. So I thought, you know what? I think this is an area that needs research and I can potentially bring something to the game."

It seemed to me that IVF shouldn't have been the first port of call. There are a lot of side effects and it's hard work for the female.
Dr Angela Crean

Dr Crean had never intended to become a specialist in reproduction. As a child, she spent summers snorkelling at Port Phillip Bay in southern Victoria, where her parents had a holiday house. She would marvel at the underwater universe and dream of becoming a marine biologist.

Early on, she worked with cunjevoi - creatures that cling in clumps to rocky shores and squirt jets of water when squeezed. She found, much to her surprise, that they could adjust their sperm quality according to their surroundings and, more importantly, that those changes had an impact on the offspring's chances of survival. The discovery - at odds with reproductive theories of the time - sparked the question that has driven her research ever since: how does a male's environment influence his offspring's health?

"There are still a lot of males writing about what females should do to improve their reproductive success," says Dr Crean, "but not so many females writing about what males need to do to improve their reproductive success. That's something that tickles my fancy - that it's a female telling males what they should do for a change."

Looking beyond IVF

Dr Crean eventually fell pregnant naturally. Her 10-month-old son, Parker, smiles down from a photo on the wall in her office at the University.

"Now when I'm starting to get frustrated at work, I can look up at him and think, OK, you're the reason I'm doing this, because I want other people to have that joy and that frustration and that heartbreak of having a kid."

She is currently working with sheep, looking at the consequences of assisted reproduction on offspring health and investigating whether sperm competition can boost sperm quality. Eventually, she plans to switch to reproductive medicine for humans. Her goal is to improve the success rate of simpler artificial reproductive technologies, such as assisted insemination, reducing medicine's reliance on IVF.

It's a long way from marine biology. "But that's the thing about science," she says. "You never really know where it's going to take you. You just follow the path of the questions.

"You get to come up with ideas then go out and test them. And sometimes you find out that what was written in the books was wrong. When you get to change how people think about things, there's no better thrill."

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