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Women In Science

When Chemists Struggle With Infertility And Miscarriage

Those who have had difficulties starting a family share their stories and advice for how to find support at home and at work

by Linda Wang
February 8, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 6

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A drawing of a woman checking off a bunch of other priorities before getting around to starting a family.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

When she turned 35, Amber Charlebois thought her life was finally on track. She had earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, was completing a postdoc, and had a faculty position lined up. She had even met her soul mate in graduate school, and they had gotten married. It wasn’t long before they started talking about having a baby.

“I was thinking that if I could time it right, it would be great to have my first child in the summer right before I started my teaching position in the fall,” she says.

Looking back, Charlebois acknowledges the thought was naive. She didn’t get pregnant until the winter of November 2001, while she was in her first semester of teaching. Then she had a miscarriage three months into the pregnancy.

Charlebois says she never thought she’d have any difficulties getting and staying pregnant. “When I was planning my future as a young scientist, I just assumed that everything was going to work out the way that I planned,” she says. “Unfortunately, that’s not how it happened.”

Chemists may delay trying to start a family until they finish a Ph.D. or postdoc or until they feel financially secure in a tough job market. But waiting too long to start a family can increase a couple’s chances of experiencing infertility and miscarriage.

Those who endure infertility and miscarriage often feel isolated or alone because they find it difficult to talk about what they are going through, especially at work. Indeed, for privacy reasons, many sources whom C&EN interviewed for this story asked not to be identified, so some names have been changed.

But the chemists C&EN spoke with for this story agreed that opening up about infertility can help chemists find the support they need from friends and colleagues, whether it be simply a sympathetic ear or the flexibility to go to medical appointments.

“We really need to start being able to talk about this without feeling afraid or ashamed,” says Charlebois, who is chair of the American Chemical Society Women Chemists Committee and a lecturer at SUNY Geneseo. “This is incredibly difficult and painful to talk about, but it’s important to start the conversation.”

Generally speaking, fertility decreases with age. For example, a 2013 study led by Kenneth Rothman of Boston University found that among 2,820 fertile Danish women, 13% of 30- to 35-year-olds failed to get pregnant within a year of trying, compared with 28% of women between the ages of 35 and 40—corresponding to a doubling of the infertility rate (Fertil. Steril., DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2013.02.040). And a University of Otago review of 90 studies spanning 94,000 men found age-associated declines in semen volume, motility, and morphology (Ageing Res. Rev. 2015, DOI: 10.1016/j.arr.2014.10.007).

Complicating matters, the chances of a pregnant woman having a miscarriage are greater if she’s older. According to the American Pregnancy Association, women under the age of 35 have a 15% chance of miscarriage. Women who are 35 to 45 years old have a 20 to 35% chance of miscarriage. And women over the age of 45 can have up to a 50% chance of miscarriage.

Meanwhile, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the median age at which people in the physical sciences receive their doctorate is nearly 30. Add to that a few more years for a postdoc, and many scientists are in their mid-30s by the time they start their independent careers. Moreover, the average age for tenure receipt among tenure-track faculty in the sciences was 36 in 1985, but by 2003, it had increased to beyond 39, according to a November 2009 report by the Center for American Progress and the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security.

How Does Your Institution Rate For Its Parental Accommodation Policies?

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It has long been considered taboo to give birth to a baby as a chemistry graduate student. But the culture within chemistry departments is changing, says Richard Zare, Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford University, whose chemistry department was among the first to adopt a parental accommodation policy about 10 years ago. “It’s better understood that if we want people to have a career in chemistry, we want the chemistry department to be family-friendly, to be life-friendly,” he says.

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Universities such as Stanford are increasingly instituting policies to support graduate students and postdocs who are pregnant, offering maternity and paternity leave and guaranteeing new parents’ jobs will still be there when they return from leave. “As a professional person, there is no good time to have a child. It always will affect your profession,” Zare says. “What you’re really looking for is a profession that does have a work-life balance that’s healthy.”

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C&EN wrote about parental accommodation policies in 2009 (C&EN, Jan. 12, 2009, page 39) and is now looking to revisit this topic. Please tell us how your institution is doing in regards to its parental accommodation policies at We will share the results in a follow-up story later this year. The survey closes on March 1.

Still, the pressures of pursuing a scientific career lead many to choose to wait to start trying to have a family. “Richard,” who is in his early 30s and is a faculty member at a midwestern university, says he and his wife, who is a speech therapist, have been trying to have a baby since 2010. “We had both decided to postpone trying to have children until we were done with graduate school,” he says.

Looking back, he wishes they would have started sooner. “Don’t take fertility for granted,” he says. “Putting off a family for the sake of a career has consequences that you may not be prepared for.”

But for many chemists, particularly women, it remains taboo to have a baby during graduate school. “When you’re in graduate school, the implicit understanding is, ‘Thou shall not get pregnant,’ ” says “Rebecca,” who, with her husband, waited until they both had jobs before trying to have a baby. Their first child came relatively easily, but Rebecca was diagnosed with secondary infertility and was never able to have a second child.

Some people simply don’t meet the right person until later in life. “I didn’t meet anybody that I wanted to get married to,” says “Betty,” who is now a chemistry professor at a large research university. “I worked all the time.”

She got her first faculty appointment at age 34. “I was an assistant professor, and I still hadn’t met anybody. It gets really hard as an assistant professor to meet people because you’re working your butt off to try and get tenure.” She acknowledges that when she was 38, she seriously considered getting a sperm donor and having a baby alone. She also considered freezing her eggs, a procedure with no guarantees of success.

At age 39, she finally did meet someone, and they got married. “I met him through the personal ads in the local newspaper, and he was widowed with two teenage children,” she says. “We got married four months after we met, and I got pregnant right away at 39 years old.”

After the birth of their first child, they tried unsuccessfully to have a second one. “We tried artificial insemination for a year, and we did two or three rounds of that.” She then used a donor egg and got pregnant, but that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

A second miscarriage followed shortly after. “It was horrible,” she says. Her grief over the loss made it tough to focus on her teaching and research that semester, she says. “My students gave me really bad evaluations, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to hardly anybody about it.”

Betty estimates she and her husband spent around $40,000 out of pocket for two rounds of in vitro fertilization. “At that point, I was 47, and I just quit trying.”

Infertility can affect both men and women. “My husband and I both had developing careers, and we had put things off until we were established; that was the plan,” says “Melissa.” At age 30, she had just gotten a job in industry. Her husband had also found a job, and they were finally ready to start a family. But then, he was diagnosed with cancer.

“Putting off a family for the sake of a career has consequences that you may not be prepared for.”
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An illustration of a flask.
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With treatment, her husband went into remission, and a few years later, they began fertility treatments using sperm he had banked. It took about a year, but Melissa eventually gave birth. Their second child came four years later, when she was 37 years old.

Indeed, the pain of infertility and miscarriage affects both halves of a couple. “It was really tough on me,” says “Derek,” a chemistry postdoc whose wife experienced more than a half-dozen miscarriages before she was able to give birth to a daughter. “My research didn’t really take a hit, but the way that I interacted with my colleagues and collaborators really came through. I was just persistently frustrated and down on myself.

“During this time, we got so frustrated that we drank a lot. That was how we coped,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this.”

On top of that, the fertility treatments were expensive, and much of it was not covered by insurance. “We spent somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 on treatment,” Derek says. “We’re still paying for it.”

According to the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago, the average cost of one round of in vitro fertilization in the U.S. is about $11,000 to $12,000, and what insurance companies will cover for such treatments varies widely. Many do not cover fertility treatments at all. Currently, only 15 states require insurance coverage for fertility treatments, according to Resolve, the National Infertility Association.

Because of their religious beliefs, Richard and his wife are not considering using assisted reproductive technologies. “It’s been very stressful,” he says. “It’s getting your hopes up and then having your hopes dashed once a month every month for the past five years. We had no idea this would be an issue.”

Some couples experiencing infertility choose to adopt. “Maria” says that because of some medical issues, she and her husband decided to adopt a little girl rather than pursue fertility treatments that her doctors estimated had only a small chance of succeeding. “We love her; she’s amazing,” Maria says. But she admits that she still thinks about having a biological child. “The hope doesn’t die, even now,” she says.

She points out that infertility doesn’t have to be a lonely journey. “Once you start talking to people about infertility, you find out that a lot of people are dealing with it,” she says.

Yet all of the chemists C&EN talked with for this story confessed to finding it difficult to talk about infertility, particularly at work.

Richard says his wife found support among her church friends, but he feels very much alone not being able to share what he’s being going through. “I’m not open about it at work; it’s not easy to talk about,” he says.

Rebecca says she wishes it hadn’t been so difficult for her to open up with her manager about her struggles, which made it more challenging to schedule her frequent doctor’s appointments. “This is a medical issue,” she says. “We try to be empathetic to colleagues and peers with cancer and other afflictions. Why is infertility any different?”

Melissa says it helps to set expectations. “Be up front with your manager in a proactive way. Say, ‘I may be out for appointments with little notice, but here is how I’m going to compensate for that time away. Here is how I am going to make sure it does not affect my productivity,’ ” she says.

Richard suggests reaching out to one person you trust at work. “You don’t have to announce it at your next department meeting,” he says. “Even sharing with one person can help unload some of the emotional baggage you carry around.”

Rebecca says that as soon as she began talking to her female colleagues about her struggles with infertility, they began opening up to her about their own stories. “It’s unfortunate that there were all these people who had been through this, but at the same time, they were a godsend because they had gone through it.”

“Wendy,” who struggled with infertility for eight years and had four miscarriages, says there can be real consequences to not telling people at work what you’re going through.

“The culture at the company at that time, at least among the scientists where I worked, was very much that any time off for pregnancy, child care, or maternity leave was tolerated, but you lost a competitive edge compared with people who were on-site all the time,” she says.

So one morning, when she woke up to heavy bleeding, she nevertheless went into work because she was interviewing a job candidate. “I went in, introduced him for a seminar, and then excused myself and went to the nurse on-site.”

Wendy says she wished she would have told her boss “because we had a very good relationship. I would still not have told anyone else, however. But telling my boss would have definitely eased some of the stress.”


Fortunately, the episode was a false alarm and not a miscarriage, and Wendy gave birth to her first child at age 41. She had a second child at age 46.

As for Charlebois, she went on to have three healthy children, the youngest when she was 41. She now mentors younger chemists about the importance of having a good work-life balance. “I always try to share with them some of my stories,” Charlebois says. “I love it when I can bring my children to work with me. I love having my students see me as a mother, and I also love having my kids see me as a professor.”  


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