Professor Frances Balkwill, OBE

Doctor of Science

Monday 20 July 2015 at 10.30am - Orator: Professor Christos Paraskeva

Madam Pro Vice- Chancellor,

Forty two years ago, Frances Balkwill graduated with a degree in Cellular Pathology from Bristol University from what is now named the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Fran, no doubt, like many of you successful graduates here today, was wondering what to do next. Many graduates aspire to making important scientific discoveries, others to do something tangible to help mankind, help the deprived, write a children’s book or indeed something to inspire others. Oh yes, and hopefully have time to have a life, friends and a family. Well, Fran has done it all.  A real inspiration to current graduates.

After graduating from Bristol University in 1973, Fran did a PhD in Leukaemia research in the Medical Oncology Department at St Bart’s Hospital, London. Here Fran already encountered direct contact with cancer patients, which was her inspiration to do research to benefit the patient.

From her PhD onwards, Fran joined the battle against cancer. With over 200 different types of cancer and 1:3 people in the UK still being affected by this disease, the battle continues. Fran worked for several years at the world leading Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London, making a name for herself in a range of important research projects, including discovering the different roles of cytokines in skin and ovarian cancer, and publishing in prestigious journals, such as Nature and Nature Medicine.

Fran is currently Professor of Cancer Biology at Bart’s Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, where she leads the Centre for Cancer and Inflammation. Fran is best known for founding the field of cancer-related inflammation through her early collaborations with Alberto Mantovani. She studies the links between cancer and inflammation, being especially interested in translating knowledge of cancer biology into new biological treatments for cancer, the role that cytokines play in cancer promotion and novel ways of modelling the human tumour microenvironment. Always ahead of her times, Fran is tackling some of the major challenges confronting cancer researchers.

One of the key challenges for biomedical scientists is to translate their exciting research into a tangible benefit for the patient. According to eminent Professor Nick Lemoine, Director of the Institute of Cancer at Bart’s and The London School of Medicine, who I quote: ‘Fran is one of only a few scientists to have translated her discoveries about cytokine networks in ovarian cancer into clinical trials, using novel antibodies in patients with advanced disease. These studies have started to show promise that gives hope, to those, with otherwise incurable cancer’. Thus Fran is fulfilling her early PhD student ambitions to make a real difference for cancer patients.

Fran is frequently invited to speak at prestigious international conferences. She is an author on 240+ scientific papers and reviews and has written a number of academic books. Her papers cited more than 25,000 times – this means that the scientific community take note of Fran’s research.

In 2006, Fran was made a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Fran was awarded an OBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. In 2009, she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association and is currently a board member of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

For many, a successful career in science and medicine would be enough, but not for Fran. Fran, for many years, has also been actively involved in the communication of science to non-specialist audiences, especially young people. Fran is Director of the Centre of the Cell, a biomedical science centre for children, educational website and widening participation and outreach project, working with local schools in London’s East End, an area of social deprivation. So although Fran has joined the academic elite, her passion and inspiration spill out to help local people, not quite so fortunate.  Being an East Ender myself, I can see the true value of this endeavour! There have been more than 100,000 participants in Centre of the Cell activities since its opening in September 2009.

The Centre of the Cell received the 2010 Museums and Heritage Award for the best educational initiative in the UK and the 2012 EngageU Award for best European University Public Engagement work. Being passionate about the Life Sciences Fran wanted her children to appreciate this passion. So she looked for science books for her young children to read – she could not find any. Most people would shrug their shoulders, and give up - but NO - Fran decided to write her own! Clear lesson for us all here! Fran has since written thirteen excellent science books for children on cell and molecular biology with brilliant titles such as Enjoy Your Cells and The Egg and Sperm Race. These books have been translated into twelve foreign languages with over half a million copies sold worldwide. 

Fran won the 2005 Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize, in recognition of her 'outstanding work in communicating the concepts, facts and fascination of science in a way that appeals to children of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, while at the same time maintaining a distinguished research career'. Other winners have included, David Attenborough, Susan Greenfield and Brian Cox.

If you are wondering whether Fran has had time for anything else, she has two children, Jessica (who is here today) and Barnaby and is a very proud grandmother of two. Fran is an amateur, but accomplished piano player, who spent her last pay rise towards a very elegant baby grand piano for her apartment in the Lexington Building, one of the most glamorous addresses in London's Spitalfields, probably London's hippest neighbourhood.

Fran is a fantastic role model for women in science, not only for her accomplishments in cancer research, but also by her qualities as a mentor to guide women through the door in the glass ceiling, as well as her astonishing achievement in the Centre of the Cell to reach out to the thousands of children who could be inspired to be the scientists of the future.

The University of Bristol is proud of Fran’s outstanding achievements and we can all be proud of being part of the University of Bristol. Within this year’s graduates there are many who will be inspired and continue in Fran’s footsteps.

Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Frances Balkwill, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.   

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