Making babies

5 February 2020:

In doubles tennis, teamwork is everything: knowing when to poach and when to fake, dividing the court effectively between partners, and knowing how to subtly communicate so that every serve placed benefits your partner. It’s a bit like science, said Hanna McLennan.

The former junior singles champion discovered doubles was her strong suit, and at age 15 battled to a state semi-final spot and a Tennis Australia Ranking. “But my love of science became my focus,” she recalled. “Doubles is a tactical game that also requires strategy, but communication is essential too. And I think my ability to communicate is a big part of the science I do now, it’s helpful in explaining biology to a chemist or a physicist.”

These days, working in a transdisciplinary team like the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) – where biologists, clinicians, chemists, engineers and physicists all collaborate toward common goals – she’s had to learn to see science from many angles, and communicate across worldviews.

“Take an experiment: a biologist is dealing with variation in different samples, because every human is different, so we have to constantly repeat experiments to show that something works in a majority of cases,” she said. “But a physicist [designing a probe] almost thinks from an optical fibre’s perspective and needs a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to an experiment, while an engineer needs an optical fibre device to always work effectively as possible, so spends a lot of time finessing and troubleshooting.”

McLennan, who majored in anatomy and physiology at the University of Adelaide, has always been fascinated by reproduction “and just how complicated it is, and how lucky we are to be born at all,” considering how much can go wrong to prevent “the healthiest egg and sperm go on to make the embryo.”

Having two aunts who were unable to have children helped ignite an interest in reproduction and helping couples conceive. But she knew working with patients was not for her: “I always knew I couldn’t handle being a medical doctor; it would be too devastating to give patients bad news. But I love learning about the human body and thought I could go into medical research and help that way.”

After completing an honours project on the evolution of sperm in native Australian rodents, she joined CNBP to help develop new ways to identify the best human eggs, or oocytes, for IVF using chemical probes and optical fibres.

It also allowed her to indulge in a fascination of hers: microscopy. “I love looking at cells under the microscope. I’m a very visual person, so being able to see that an egg smaller than a grain of sand actually has all this complexity, with really small structures, is just fascinating to me,” she said. “And the advances we have made at the centre are giving us such power to understand things that were impossible to see even a few years ago.”

And she feels she’s making a contribution: “It’s a way for me to help people in a clinical setting, without being directly the practitioner who treats them.”