Getting the Girl

Getting the Girl


shutterstock_231112240There is nothing sleek or high-tech about this third-floor conference room in Fairfax, Va., except, perhaps, the bright red laser pointer that skitters across the eerie greenish slide of phosphorescent sperm. The projector jams periodically during the hourlong presentation, and the central air-conditioning can’t keep up with the late-spring heat, so some very low-tech fans are brought in to move the muggy air around in circles.

The crowd — about 40 people, mostly couples, mostly in their mid-30’s, nearly all of them paying a baby sitter so they can be here — shifts and rustles in the hodgepodge of chairs. One very pregnant woman in the second row (planning ahead, for the baby after this one) fans her face with the cardboard information packet, creating a breeze in the most old-fashioned way.

There is, to be sure, a very high-tech laboratory downstairs, but it is highly unlikely that any of these people (What shall I call them? Clients? Patients? Research subjects?) will ever be allowed to see it. At its center is a flow cytometer, a beige box of a machine about the size of an L-shaped office desk that spends all day, every day, sorting sperm. Using fluorescent dyes followed by zaps from an ultraviolet laser, it separates sperm that carry X chromosomes (which create female embryos) from those that carry Y chromosomes (which create male embryos). It is a sensitive and delicate piece of technology, and the slightest change in room temperature, even the breeze created by too many people walking about, can alter the results. So no one, other than the masked-and-gloved lab technician, is allowed in the room while the sorting is going on. READ MORE