Reflections from a 1st Year trainee Embryologist
To say that my first year on the STP hasn’t quite been what I expected is probably an understatement. After two plain-sailing rotations I (along with the rest of the country) was catapulted into a different world where fusilli became worth its weight in gold and where the word ‘unprecedented’ became incredibly triggering. My genomics rotation, which I had just started, was suspended and my final rotation – well, who knows. The HFEA, the government’s regulator for fertility treatments, contacted clinics asking them to not start any new treatments and to complete any ongoing treatments by 15th April 2020. Because of this, I found myself back in my hometown and adjusting to living with my parents again. With no microscopes or pipettes in sight, I had to turn my attention to exam revision and completing whichever competencies I could, usually with the help of a lot of Google searching. The nature of a lockdown means that the luxury of distraction is denied to you, which leaves you lot of time to peruse the thoughts in your own head…
Here are a few points of reflection, from my first year as a trainee:
- You don’t just learn about science on rotations – well, the ones I got to physically attend!
Rotations aren’t just about getting your head around a different specialty or ticking off competencies. Every few months you rock up somewhere completely new and (at least in my case) have no idea what’s going on. You have to interact with new people, find your way around new buildings and figure out how to use the staff room microwave without looking completely inept. In the short 10 days I had in the genomics department, before Covid-19 ejected me, I directly trained or liaised with 9 different people. All these people communicate in different ways and have distinct personalities! Being able to adapt to new environments, build rapport, and be brave enough to say “No I don’t understand, can you go through that again?’ will get you really far, and will no doubt serve you well in your future career.
- It’s ok to admit you’re struggling
Even if the physical health of you or your loved ones hasn’t been directly affected by the pandemic, the mental load of social isolation, flipped routines, and constant news updates can be hugely underestimated, particularly if you have experienced the upheaval of having to move elsewhere. Even struggles or worries that existed before the Covid wave hit end up being amplified by lockdown. With that in mind, it’s important to let people know if you don’t feel you’re mentally coping. I reached a point during lockdown where my personal struggles and subsequent feelings of being out of control started to affect my mental wellbeing, and my ability to work. Making my boss aware of my struggles honestly provided me with a huge sense of relief, and any good manager will do what they can to support you. Don’t suffer in silence, even after the Covid chaos has dissipated. Speak to someone you trust and seek support.
- Productivity should never come before your wellbeing
Comparison really is the thief of joy. It’s quite natural to compare where you’re up to with where your peers are up to, especially if there are other trainees in your department. But this isn’t always helpful. Our productivity is often linked to our mental wellbeing and comes in waves. We must remember that we are each in a unique set of circumstances, especially right now!
Graphic by Dr Zoë Ayres, Analytical Chemist and academic mental health advocate. (Check her out on Twitter @zjayres)
It’s all well and good “getting ahead”, but if this means that we sacrifice our mental health in the process, it’s simply not worth it. We often think that others are managing way better than we are (and getting more done), but in reality, we don’t know what’s truly going on with them. Our strengths might also lie in other places – you might not be that great at powering through the written competencies, but you might breeze through other aspects of training.
Pace yourself. Recognise when you need a break and try to break up your WFH time with things you enjoy. Focus on completing the next small step, rather than planning how you’ll tackle the entire staircase in a day. This is the one I will have to continue reminding myself of.
- You’re part of something really important – corny, but true.
As someone who frequently found her dad slumped on the sofa the morning after a nightshift in the Intensive Care Unit, having not quite made it to bed, I relate to feeling like a bit of a fraud amidst the NHS praise. But, even if ‘doing your bit’ meant Zoom CBDs and Peaky Blinders marathons, it doesn’t take away from your role as a Healthcare Scientist.
The phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ comes to mind. With IVF cycles grinding to a halt across the country, the outcry from patients desperately seeking treatment was deafening. The biological clock was now accompanied by the Covid clock, with patients losing valuable time and Embryologists feeling a little helpless. If there’s anything that makes you realise how much your service matters to people, it’s having it taken away suddenly.
Everything we experience over the next few years will shape us as scientists, pandemics included. I’m confident that living through this has opened my eyes to the true value of the NHS, how my specialty really does change lives, and will ultimately make me a better, more resilient scientist.
Thanks so much for reading – I hope these points have been helpful, and maybe some of the things I’ve mentioned ring true for others? Keep safe everyone, and just for a laugh…
Trainee Clinical Embryologist