Michelle Dickinson: "There is a little girl out there, nine weeks old ... she is genetically half mine"

by Clare de Lore / 05 September, 2016
The scientist dubbed Nanogirl talks about the rewarding but painful process of becoming an egg donor.
Photo/Angie Humphreys

There is, it seems, no aspect of Michelle Dickinson’s life that isn’t touched by her love of science. When the nanotechnologist and science educator, whose alter ego is Nanogirl, injured her hand, she designed disability aids and manufactured them using her home 3D printer. When friends were desperate for a baby, she volunteered to be their egg donor.

Dickinson, who lives in Auckland with partner Joe Davis, is a senior lecturer in chemical and material engineering at the University of Auckland. She has her own business, Nanogirl Labs Ltd, and co-founded the education charity OMGTech.

Her late father was an English-Maltese soldier and her mother is from Hong Kong. She moved to New Zealand in 2009. Neither parent had an academic background, and Dickinson says that as she and her brother were growing up, there were no books at home, wherever home happened to be.

Your mother is in England, your brother in China and you’ve ended up here. Have you settled on being a New Zealander?

We’re military kids, so we knew we would be scattered. We got used to travelling every two or three years, so once our parents made us stop, we just kept going, anyway. I have a Kiwi passport, and if people overseas ask me who I am, I say I’m a Kiwi. I am mixed race and always lived in different places and I never had any answers until I hit my thirties. That whole “who are you, where are you from?” I didn’t know. I am ethnically diverse and geographically diverse, but now a Kiwi through and through.

Michelle Dickinson with her dad. Photo/Supplied Michelle Dickinson with her dad. Photo/Supplied

What was your childhood like?

My parents were not academic and did not have any qualifications. I always wondered how much better I would have done if my parents had known what homework was and had told me to do it, and if we had had books in the house. I wasn’t read to as a child and I would listen to children’s stories about being read bedtime stories and I thought that must be amazing. But that wasn’t my childhood.

How did you get your start in the world of science and academia?

I wasn’t naturally academic. It is a skill I learnt along the way, because I understand you need it to survive. I was failing and a teacher told me I had to learn how to do an exam. I didn’t even do homework – I didn’t know how to – and so I learnt a lot of that on the fly.

I am academic in that I have degrees, but I am an experimentalist as an engineer, a hands-on kinaesthetic learner. I will always learn better by building something to understand it than by writing it down. That is the way my brain is wired, so I got through my exams, but it is not my natural way of communicating and it is not my preferred way of learning. I have also learnt the power of being able to communicate practical science experiments through writing – the Herald stuff I do, the blogs I write, being able to communicate through literature, which is definitely a skill I have learnt as an adult.

You seem to have a great knack with children, judging by your theatrical presentations of science at live performances or on YouTube.

I am passionate about science not just being a subject at school. A lot of children have that as their experience of science – it is theoretical and it can be quite dry. I want people to know that science is everywhere and that it is really important to understand it, so you can make big decisions in your life: about whether or not to vaccinate your children and why; whether or not you believe in climate change; and why and how scientists go about collecting data. I wanted science never to be that subject with negative connotations.

You have to make it exciting without losing the content, and I have been working hard on that, so kids can maybe have a light-bulb moment about science.

It is incredibly humbling that I have girls writing to me and sending me pictures and school projects about me, and parents of girls writing about their daughters now having a passion for science.

I never set out to be a celebrity scientist; I set out to help communicate what seemed like complex jargon into general public conversations.

Kitesurfing in Aitutaki. Kitesurfing in Aitutaki.

How did that very personal experiment – the egg donation – turn out?

A couple, friends of mine, had gone through several failed IVF attempts. They were told her eggs were no longer viable and they had to find a donor. They had always wanted their child to be able to trace their genetics and the biological mother, and if you buy an egg from a donor service, you don’t get that chance.

We sat down over dinner to talk about how you even ask a friend about getting their eggs. The fact that I have a bunch of eggs I am not using was the answer and I offered them my eggs. There were tears and a long two-year journey of tests, and then treatment. I moved to London for a month for IVF while the donee went through the treatment to get her ready.

It was a harrowing experience, with all the risks and the chance it might fail. But now there is a little girl out there who is nine weeks old, living in London. She is genetically half mine but biologically the donee’s, because her mother was pregnant with her. So she has two mothers. It is an incredibly rewarding and beautiful process and I am so grateful I did it. I’m talking about it because I realise how few donors there are and how many women are desperate for eggs.

What was the process like for you?

It was awful. It is painful, time-consuming, invasive, and you are pumping yourself with hormones. I cried in the middle of the street for no reason, my ovaries felt like they were the size of oranges, and my stomach felt like it had doubled in size. You have to learn how to inject yourself in the stomach three times a day, you have to have blood tests twice a day for three or four weeks. It is an incredible journey and for me, as a scientist, it was fascinating to see that if you injected this amount of hormone, you could definitely tell the effects in very short order. As the scientist nerd, I was, “Wow, this much oestrogen makes me feel like this”, and you correlate certain hormone injections with moods and feelings. It is very interesting from a science perspective.

Do you feel a connection with the baby?

I do, but I haven’t met her yet because I had an accident and couldn’t travel to be there when she was born. I think the second I hold her, there will be a deep connection of pure love. We have decided as co-parents that she will always know there was a birth mother and an egg mother – she will never have that moment of remembering when she was told. I will be part of this child’s life as a godmother or aunt figure throughout her life. I feel the same love a godmother would have for her godchild.

Has it made you want a child of your own?

No. When you donate your eggs, you have to have so much counselling, and if you want a child of your own, they will not let you donate eggs, because there are risks of infertility with it. They will usually only take donors who have finished having children, or women who have never had children and don’t want them. I don’t have a biological drive to have my own. I have a thousand kids write to me every month as Nanogirl. There are lots of children all around me.

Was there any book or guide to help you through the IVF donor process?

There wasn’t much to read about it. As the baby gets older and I spend more time with her and her parents, I will definitely write blogs or articles about what you go through as an egg donor. I have been penning some stuff and I also did a video diary every day for the duration of the donation process. Now, when I look at it, it was such an emotional ride.

When will you get to meet the baby?

Maybe at Christmas time, after I get the go-ahead from the doctor. Having your hand rebuilt is never fun, but it gives you a new perspective on disabilities, what it is like as a busy person and having to rely on public transport and not being able to open jars or brush your own teeth – practical things. The thing I celebrated most last week was being able to hold a hairbrush and brush my hair. That sounds silly, but after 10 weeks, it is nice to get the basics back. I’ve been able to engineer some of my own devices with my little 3D printer to help me. I have a handle now for the kettle, which means I can make tea. That’s an advantage of having my own 3D printer at home.

What are you reading?

I am actually writing a book. It is called The Kitchen Science Cookbook, a beautiful recipe book, but instead of baking cakes, you bake science experiments.

I have been heavily researching the best things you can do in your kitchen with things in your pantry. I wanted families to be able to do science in the kitchen that was not intimidating and did not use expensive ingredients – just milk, vinegar, baking soda, that sort of thing.

As for reading for fun, I read science I don’t know anything about. I am in the middle of a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli writer. It’s about why humans became the dominant species. The science behind it is that it’s because we as a tribe believe in imaginary things, like money. Because money isn’t a thing, right? It’s a belief system, and as long as we all believe that a $20 note has a value, then everything works, but actually there is no such thing as money; it is a concept created for trade.

The same for religion – you believe in different gods and everybody comes together because of this imaginary belief, because we have the same rules. It is fascinating on [the question of] how we have survived and been dominant because we believe in imaginary things, as opposed to physical things.

I am not religious, but I understand the importance of a belief system, and Sapiens is great for showing how we, as a human race, really need things to believe in. I don’t have a closed mind about it.

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