The start-up experience: Conducting fertility research at Proov

UW–Madison graduate student Andrea Wegrzynowicz studies proteins implicated in antibiotic resistance using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques. But something else was always at the back of her mind — how could she help people who are looking to understand fertility better?

Andrea WegrzynowiczWegrzynowicz was inspired by her experiences with fertility planning and hormonal birth control. The latter had given her unmanageable side effects.

“My second year of grad school, I was experiencing these side effects and throwing my hands up and saying, something has to change for my own mental health,” Wegrzynowicz says.

So, she did what many scientists often do and turned to peer-reviewed research studies.

“My ability to read research articles led me to realize that this field is incredibly science-based…things just kind of snowballed from there. I started pursuing fertility awareness educator training, which I finished in spring of 2022,” Wegrzynowicz says. “Then, I did an internship with Proov.”

Wegrzynowicz’s internship with Proov, a company that makes at-home ovulation kits that measure levels of reproductive hormones such as luteinizing hormone and progesterone, was made possible through the Biotechnology Training Program (BTP). The BTP offers opportunities, including focused coursework and an internship, for doctoral students to obtain training and experiences they might not otherwise.

Wegrzynowicz’s project with Proov built on some bench skills she had gained over the course of her first two years of Ph.D. research as a member of biochemistry professor Katherine Henzler-Wildman‘s lab.

Everything else was new. For example, when Wegrzynowicz wasn’t working on developing biochemical assays, she wrote blog posts and website content to help translate how Proov fills gaps in fertility science for their audiences. That work, performed under the guidance of Proov’s marketing manager, gave Wegrzynowicz experience in everything from search engine optimization to understanding what customers want from fertility tests. She also contributed to clinical marketing materials, wrote a journal article, and analyzed clinical research data.

“Proov basically said, here’s the task we’re asking you to complete, tell us what you need, and then do it. At first that was really terrifying, but I didn’t crash and burn. The internship was a good competence-building experience for me, to show that I can carry out successful research outside of my PI’s lab,” Wegrzynowicz says.

At UW–Madison, Wegrzynowicz integrated lessons she learned at Proov when she taught a semester-long seminar on the biochemistry of reproductive hormones during Biochemistry 551, an undergraduate-level capstone course.

“I’ve been able to integrate some of this into my teaching journey, which has just been so much fun,” Wegrzynowicz says. “We know so little about our own bodies. Many students have no idea how common endometriosis and PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome] are, for example. They think these are rare, but studies show that at least one in 10 females has endometriosis, and both conditions are underdiagnosed.”

Wegrzynowicz is now considering joining a company or academic lab that studies reproductive health and fertility after she defends her Ph.D. research. She credits the BTP for giving her opportunities to explore careers and embrace these insights.

“BTP really does let you consider whatever sort of career path you’re thinking of. You want to talk patent law? Science policy? Industry careers? Go for it. Even when PIs and advisers are supportive of these career paths, they often just don’t have the resources for it,” Wegrzynowicz says. “BTP lets you explore careers outside of academia by doing an internship and through seminars and other opportunities.”

Disclosures: Wegrzynowicz is currently a web content and technical writer at Proov. She also runs a Four Lakes Fertility, LLC, a fertility coaching business she established in 2022. Wegrzynowicz was funded on NIGMS T32GM008349.

Written by Catherine Steffel, Ph.D. The UW–Madison Graduate School recently launched a pilot internships program so that more graduate students in the life sciences have funded opportunities to gain internship experience during their time-to-degree. Learn more about the pilot program and eligibility criteria (students on F-1 visas are eligible) here.