Athena SWAN – Women in Focus Article: Professor Frances Balkwill
3 November 2021
Frances (Fran) Balkwill OBE, FMedSci is Professor of Cancer Biology at Queen Mary University of London and Deputy Director of their Centre for the Tumour Microenvironment. She obtained a Cellular Pathology degree from University of Bristol and a PhD in leukaemia cell biology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital London. She worked as a postdoc studying interferon at the ICRF in Lincoln’s Inn Fields before moving to Queen Mary University of London in 2000. She is famous for her work on tumour microenvironment and her prize-winning authorship of children’s books on various scientific topics. As part of our series of interviews with women who successfully broke through the gender barriers to reach the top, we talked to Fran about her life and career.
Fran was born in 1952 in Kingston-upon-Thames, south-west London. She was the eldest of three sisters and the first in the history of her family to go to university. Although initially keen on a career in medicine, Fran switched her allegiance to science as a schoolgirl. She attributes her ambition and resilience to her hardworking grandfather who become clerk to the county court and was a scout master who worked with children at the Barnardo’s orphanage nearby. Although neither of Fran’s parents had been in higher education, they were ambitious for their daughters and Fran won a scholarship to Surbiton High School, discovering a passion both for science and literature. In 1969 she was one of only five students on a new degree course, Cellular Pathology, at Bristol University led by Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, who celebrated his 100th birthday in May 2021. The course, with its emphasis on laboratory research and its charismatic lead “Ep” with his tales of discovering the Epstein-Barr virus had a dramatic influence on Fran, inspiring her lifetime love for laboratory science and science communication.
Her PhD years were complicated by the death of two of her supervisors; the first being Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, the UK’s first medical oncologist who in 1975 was tragically killed by an IRA bomb intended for his neighbour the MP Sir Hugh Fraser. Her second supervisor was Professor Walter (Wally) Spector who died suddenly from a heart attack. With such a track-record, Fran found some difficulty in attracting a third supervisor but was eventually taken on by Tim Oliver (now Emeritus Professor), then one of the more junior academic clinicians in the department. Her post doc was spent working in clinical trials of interferon with Prof Joyce Taylor-Papadimitriou before heading her own group. Fran gave birth to her two children during her post-doc years and, when failing to find a book that adequately explained cell science to them, decided to write her own. She teamed up with the graphic designer Mic Rolph and they published four highly-acclaimed and jargon-free children’s books titled: “Cells Are Us”, “Cell Wars”, “DNA is Here to Stay” and “Amazing Schemes Within Your Genes”, going on to produce another eight biology books for children. Fran’s love of public engagement was seized upon when she joined Queen Mary in 2000 and she became Director of Centre of the Cell, a unique award-winning informal science learning centre, the first to be sited within a research institute. Since its launch in 2009, Centre of the Cell has had 214,000 participants visiting science shows in its two ‘Pods’ and in outreach to schools. Since then she has been a member of the board of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, a trustee of Blood Cancer UK, deputy chair of CRUK Clinical Trials Committee and is chair of Prostate Cancer UK’s Research Advisory Committee. She was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2006, awarded an OBE in 2008 and, in 2021, the Beetlestone Award for excellence in informal science learning.
Fran credits her career success with good luck and having a plentiful supply of energy. Motherhood did not impose significant hurdles, even when she became a single parent to her two young children following the dissolution of her marriage. Her hardest phase was as a “working daughter” when she tried to balance her career with caring for her widowed mother who had Lewy body dementia. Despite her highly successful and lauded career, Fran still struggles with self-confidence and would advise any woman starting on her career path to focus on countering negative self-beliefs. However, Fran recognises that this lack of confidence has driven her onwards, both in her quest for scientific discovery but also in her determination to learn other skills such as hitting grade 7 in her piano-playing. She feels humbled and grateful to be in a profession that still continues to excite and tantalise. Other than regular theatre trips with her three grandchildren, retirement offers few temptations to Fran: “There is still so much to learn, the discoveries keep on coming and I still feel the best is yet to come”.