On PhDs and pregnancy

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Amy Pham in the lab holding a piece of lab equipment

PhD graduate Amy Pham shares how she balanced a challenging pregnancy and completing her PhD

Many people at Waterloo Pharmacy know Amy Pham. The PhD candidate who convocates this week spent long hours in the lab, acted as a TA for many courses and held leadership roles with the Pharmacy Graduate Association. Her positive energy fills rooms.

Most people didn’t know that behind her constant smile, Pham was facing the biggest challenge of her life. She was trying to have a child.

“My husband and I wanted to grow our family – we’d been trying for years but were starting to lose hope,” she said.

The couple’s experiences are more common than many realize; in Canada, roughly one in six couples experience infertility. Eventually, Pham and her husband TN Tran turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF) to help. The process was arduous and sometimes painful for Pham, involving numerous procedures and medications and trips to the IVF clinic in Mississauga every two days.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without a supportive partner, family and graduate supervisor,” she says. “I was nervous to initiate the conversation, but talking to my supervisor, Praveen Nekkar, ended up being the best decision I made.”

In August of 2019, Pham and Prof. Nekkar sat down and discussed her situation. She wanted to grow her family – could she do it without impacting her progression through the PhD program? Prof. Nekkar offered her several options: she could switch to part-time, or they could accommodate in other ways. Through discussion and after examining her options with Prof. Nekkar, Pham decided that she would aim for her intended PhD completion date in 2021. 

Over time though, the challenges of IVF and her PhD responsibilities began to weigh on Pham.

“It was hard to stay optimistic. Every month, I’d feel like I failed,” she says. “I finally turned to my husband and said, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ We agreed that this round of treatment would be our last.”

But then, Pham became pregnant. She was overjoyed, but cautious too – several tests were required at certain stages to ensure her child was developing properly. But as each test passed with no causes for concern, Pham grew more hopeful.

Then COVID-19 struck. Due to the nature of her research, Pham was permitted to continue her lab work throughout lockdowns. But the pharmacy school went from being a full, lively place to large, empty labs.

“I had this amazing news and no one to share it with,” she says. “I wasn’t even confident that I wanted to share. I didn’t think my friends had similar experiences, and there’s this stigma I felt with IVF, this sense of ‘what’s wrong with me’, that made me nervous to talk about it.”

Amy at a microscopePham’s PhD research involved designing and developing small molecules to help slow the development of Alzheimer’s, and she completed her lab work and dissertation writing through her pregnancy.

“I’d read scientific papers out loud so that my baby could get used to the sound of my voice,” she says. “And then I’d spend hours researching online about how to prepare for our first child.”

It was Prof. Nekkar who finally persuaded her to share her news with her peers.

“He wanted to host a virtual baby shower for me,” she says. “So, I finally told my friends. And what’s more, I decided to share my experiences with IVF. I wanted to encourage others and to help combat the stigma associated with it.”

Pham posted about her journey on social media and was shocked at the response.

“It opened the floodgates – private DMs and supportive comments. It turns out that many people I knew were experiencing similar things,” she says. “I answered questions and shared my own story.”

On May 18, 2021, Pham gave birth to Tristan, a healthy and happy boy. Different challenges lay ahead – post-partum depression and other struggles of managing a newborn while finishing her dissertation. Pham kept working and leaned on her supportive network, and in August she defended. This Saturday, she will be one of three convocating PhD graduates from the School of Pharmacy.

Amy and Tristan reading a book

 “If you’re thinking about starting a family, there’s lots of consider,” Pham says. “There’s lots to offer at the university and in your community, and I’m so grateful I reached out to Prof. Nekkar and others who supported my journey.”

Before she dives into what’s next, Pham wants to take some time with Tristan.

“I don’t want to miss a single moment,” she says. “We’ve been through so much to get here.”

Experiences like Amy Pham’s can be challenging. Below are resources on this topic as well as information for student support at Waterloo Pharmacy:

Amy and Tristan sitting at her laptop

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