Dara Berger on overcoming infertility

“It’s called an ART; it’s Assisted Reproduction Technology.” Dara Berger is the master of ART. She is the In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Lab Director at Penn Fertility Care. Berger is in charge of the embryology lab, endocrinology lab, and andrology lab. IVF is a fairly recent, quickly evolving field, and Berger is spearheading the movement.


Dara Berger got her BA in biology later continuing on to get her PhD in Human Genetics. During her PhD, she took interest in the problem of infertility. She then “found a mentor, and kind of latched on, and went from there.” Berger’s first introduction to reproductive health was when she was shadowing a genetic counselor at an IVF clinic. At that time, she wasn’t sure what type of genetics she wanted to concentrate in, but when she saw pictures of embryos decorating her genetics counselor’s office, she thought it was “the coolest thing ever.” Berger also took a stem cell research class in 2001 that focused on the ethics of embryos and found it fascinating. At that time she did not even know that embryology was something she could do. Her fate was truly cemented when she was conducting her student research and started looking at recurrent pregnancy loss.


Getting into the field of IVF isn’t the easiest path to take. Currently there are no specific programs, classes, or majors for andrologists and embryologists. There’s no in-school training, albeit there might be one or two programs that Berger knows of. She says the experience is akin to an “an apprenticeship… Somebody has to train you, and the only way to train is hands-on.” Most IVF programs are private practices. Most lab directors, embryologists and andrologists welcome the opportunity to talk about their jobs and/or allow students to shadow. Berger stresses that there is a high demand for embryologists and andrologists, and yet not that many people who go into the field.

“One of the things I like so much about what I do is that it is new.” The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in the late 1970s -- “Many of the people who invented IVF are still alive.” There is constantly new research and development going on in the world of IVF. Berger’s current research has revolved around using time lapse in incubators. In general practice, while the embryo is in the incubator, embryologists take the embryo out everyday to check on the progress of it. Now, embryologists are introducing time lapse which uses cameras inside the incubators to monitor the health of the embryos. Leaving the embryos and their environment undisturbed will improve the quality of the embryo.

One of the problems in IVF that researchers are trying solve is that it is hard to gather data about egg quality and maturity. Typically, the number of polar bodies in an egg can be used to determine if the egg is mature. Berger states that, “When you have one polar body, it’s mature and ready to be inseminated by sperm or fertilized by sperm.” However, sometimes even though the egg looks mature, it does not fertilize. Berger says, “a lot of that is due to egg quality and cytoplasmic maturity. But there’s no way to measure cytoplasmic maturity right now. You can look at it, but they all look the same.”


When looking towards her personal future, Berger would like to see herself teaching undergraduates in about ten years, since she believes universities need more academia and student exposure revolving around IVF and reproductive health. She also emphasized her love of ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection of eggs), which is the process of injecting sperm into the egg to make an embryo. Berger states, “I could ICSI all day.”

“One of the things that I do really like is we have meetings every Friday, where we talk about patients’ cycles that are going through IVF and we review their situation. We do this with a big group – lab staff, nursing, attendings, and fellows—it’s everyone in one room talking about the patients, and I really enjoy that. You get everyone’s opinion and everyone is together.”