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Professor Valentine (Val) Macaulay is Emeritus Associate Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Oxford. She qualified as a doctor at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School (CXHMS), trained in medical oncology at the Royal Marsden Hospital and Churchill Hospital and obtained a PhD at the Chester Beatty Laboratories in London. As part of our series of interviews with women who successfully broke through the gender barriers to reach the top, we talked to Val about her life and career.

Valentine Macaulay at graduation

Val is the eldest of three children born into a medical family. Her parents Peggy and Jerry Kirk met over the dissection table at CXH in 1947. Peggy was in the first intake of women medical students and Jerry was admitted on an ex-servicemen’s grant, having served in the navy during the war. Her parents had a huge influence on Val. Her father, a modest and self-effacing man, became an eminent academic surgeon and a prolific author of surgical textbooks. He was also an inspiring educator who continued to teach until he was 90. By the age of four, Val had decided on a career in medicine.

Val won a bursary to attend South Hampstead Girls School and in 1973 went to CXHMS, qualifying in 1979. Here she met her husband Andrew when he stepped into the lift wearing oily overalls and carrying an engine. Mistaking him for the lift engineer, she soon discovered he was a fellow medical student and finally agreed to marry him after four years of proposals. A psychiatrist, Andrew has been a huge support to Val throughout her career.

One of her first jobs was as Senior House Officer to Professor Ken Bagshawe, now aged 96, who pioneered cisplatin to treat germ cell tumours. The experience of curing young people with advanced cancers confirmed Val’s ambition to train in medical oncology. After working as registrar at the Royal Marsden Hospital she undertook an MD in lung cancer biology, and was the first to identify insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) as autocrine growth factors for cancer. After a PhD with Alan Ashworth, Val was invited by Adrian Harris to complete her clinical training in Oxford. She then obtained an MRC Clinician Scientist fellowship to pursue the study of IGF biology at the WIMM. This support allowed her to establish a lab group and was followed by a CRUK Senior Fellowship and HEFCE Senior Clinical Lectureship.

Val had her three sons during her postdoc years and describes motherhood as the greatest joy of her life. Her family gives her confidence and provides a relaxing counterbalance to working life. During her first few years in Oxford she worked part-time, although this was frowned upon. “People are already prejudiced against you as a woman but they’ll be more prejudiced if you work part-time”. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) and other critical comments from seniors (eg “she’s an argumentative little cow”) Val believes strongly that we must treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Overall, Val considers herself very fortunate to have such a fulfilling career and supportive colleagues. She retains an insatiable curiosity for science, and is keen to convey that sense of enthusiasm, curiosity and ambition to her students. However, Val is increasingly aware that she never reached ‘escape velocity’. Throughout her career she has had recurring periods of uncertainty due to inadequate productivity, possibly because of the challenges of combining family life with a clinical academic career, and being ‘too nice’. She would have done better to learn more rapidly to be assertive, ready to delegate, and decline tasks that compromise her own output. Val encourages women entering academia to acquire these skills early on.

Despite the recent change in her professional circumstances, she remains determined to continue her research. As testament to this tenacity, Val was recently awarded funding for WINGMEN, a phase I clinical trial of IGF inhibition for patients with prostate cancer that recently opened to recruitment.