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Milwaukee embryologist reflects on advancements of reproductive medicine after nearly 40 years in the field

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Photo courtesy of Mark Roesler
Milwaukee native Mark Roesler has been an embryologist for the past 39 years. Upon his recent retirement from the Reproductive Medicine Center at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, he shares his experiences and insights from being a part of the field of reproductive medicine.

Embryologists play an important role for anyone undergoing fertility treatments. They create viable embryos to be used in an in vitro fertilization (IVF), or frozen for later use. They manage a lab’s genetic materials as well as work to make sure the lab is an ideal environment for embryo growth and storage.

While IVF is more common today, it was recent history that this field was developed in the first place. The world’s first “test tube” baby was born in 1978 in England, and other labs eventually followed suit.

Milwaukee native Mark Roesler studied zoology at UW-Milwaukee, and he eventually went on to work in the lab at the first IVF program in the area at Waukesha Memorial hospital.

That program eventually moved to the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Roesler worked as an embryologist there for the past 39 years. He recently retired from the Reproductive Medicine Center at Froedtert and the MCW.

"My first job was in cytogenetics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and that's where I was when that initial announcement of the first IVF baby was made," recalls Roesler. "I can remember quite specifically after work that day ... talking to the lab director and just kind of speculating what it must've taken ... As it turned out it was considerably a much smaller group that had worked on that for really a number of years, and I couldn't imagine at the time that I would ever be doing something like that."

The first IVF baby in the United States was born in 1981, and the next year Roesler's lab director asked him to join him in starting a local IVF program.

"The IVF programs at the time were very few and far between," he notes. "In all of the Midwest, there was really only one [clinic] in Chicago that had had one pregnancy, and that was considered a success in those days."

"I lost track long ago, but it's well over two thousand [pregnancies] that I've been able to assist with. And again, I just say I didn’t make it happen, I assisted."

The main hurdles to get the IVF program started locally had to do with putting together all the pieces according to Roesler. This included navigating a lack of protocols, borrowing equipment and supplies from various medical fields, plus adapting their own laboratory equipment.

"As to actually doing these things, they were all things that we hadn't done before. Basically [we] had just read some articles about it with some ideas on what you needed, and what to do," explains Roesler. "We pretty much had to kind of 'seat of the pants' set it up and get going."

Initially, the public thought that IVF clinics were "creating life," according to Roesler. "I never felt that was true because life is a continuum — we didn't create something from nothing," he explains. "We had a living egg and a living sperm, and I think all we're doing is combining them in a way that lets life continue. So I think that really was the biggest misconception."

Roesler adds that there was also widespread concern that the IVF process would be harmful to human development in some way, but he notes that this turned out not to be true, and today some IVF babies are into their third generations.

Once the ground work was set up, Roesler says the clinic started their first laboratory procedures in 1984 and had their first successful case in September of that year. "It was a big relief for all of us and just a really exciting development to get that first one," he says.

Upon reflecting on his career from that first successful pregnancy to his last, Roesler says he's most proud of all of the babies he's helped to bring into the world.

"I lost track long ago, but it's well over two thousand that I've been able to assist with," he says. "And again, I just say I didn’t make it happen, I assisted. I assisted so many different couples in achieving their goals, and I'm especially grateful for the trust that people put in us ... and it was a great privilege to be able to be of service."


Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
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