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Once a physicist: Elina Berglund

Elina Berglund is the chief technology officer and co-founder of Natural Cycles – a fertility app that helps women to prevent, plan and monitor pregnancies. As a physicist, she was part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson at CERN in 2012

What sparked your interest in physics? 
I always dreamed of becoming a physicist, ever since I was five years old. I remember that I was fascinated by the stars and the universe. Before I could read, my parents would borrow books from the library and read to me about black holes and galaxies before bedtime. From the moment I started school, I would always pick physics or astronomy for any projects where we had a?choice.

Did you ever consider an academic career? 
Yes of course. I did a PhD and postdoc at CERN in the ATLAS experiment. It was more surprising that I left physics. It had a lot to do with timing. During the summer of 2012 I was deeply involved with the Higgs discovery. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been through and I felt like I was flying above the clouds for about three weeks. Then I started feeling a bit empty and I wondered what to do next. The LHC was shutting down for a couple of years for an upgrade, and after that, would I ever be able to experience something this great again in particle physics? If there was ever a time to try doing something else, this was it. But leaving physics was scary and new for me.

How did you get interested in women’s reproductive health and contraception? 
Natural Cycles basically developed out of my own need for a reliable natural contraceptive method. I was in a stable relationship and I did not want to use hormonal contraception anymore. We looked into natural family planning solutions, but there was nothing out there that was easy and reliable to use. Such a solution is prone to human errors if you analyse the data yourself; while the few devices that were available were outdated, expensive and, most of all, used simplistic algorithms. Using my statistical and programming skills from analysing data in particle physics, I developed an algorithm that analyses a woman’s body temperature to detect ovulation and pinpoint fertile and non-fertile days. Although the algorithm was at first only for my own use, I quickly realized that this was something many women wanted and needed. Several of my physics colleagues started measuring their temperatures as well and sending them to me to run my algorithm and give them a green or a red day. My husband, also a physicist, suggested we turn the algorithm into an app, so that all women and their partners could benefit from this innovation.

What were some of the challenges you faced? 
Even though the journey has been mostly a success story, we had a backlash in 2015 where we had to stop all marketing activities due to regulatory issues in Sweden. This is a rather long story and the problem came from the regulators in Sweden thinking that we should be certified as a class IIb medical device (contraception), but those that audit and approve thought that we should be a class I medical device (fertility monitor). We had to stop all marketing activities and we had to make sure to get certified as a class IIb device as quickly as possible. In February 2017 we finally became the first app to be officially certified as a form of contraception and could resume our marketing. Today it feels great to have been through that tough process, since it resulted in us becoming certified, which means a lot in terms of our credibility. We are now working on the most fun part – reoptimizing our algorithm with more data.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work, if at all? 
Oh, I would say it was a prerequisite. I still spend most of my days analysing data, whether it’s data related to fertility, user behaviour or marketing, and I still programme large parts of the app functionality myself.

Any advice for today’s students? 
Follow your passion and you will end up on the best path in life for you.