This March, to celebrate International Women’s Day, Sydney Vital is highlighting women at every stage of their careers, from PhD students to professors, and asking them to share their experiences and successes with us. We are immensely proud of the many female researchers we support and employ and whose work is essential in bringing better treatments to patients faster.
Prof Fran Boyle has been involved in clinical trials, supportive care and psychosocial research in breast cancer for over 20 years. Her distinguished career has seen her in many different roles, including a Medical Oncologist at North Sydney’s Mater Hospital, where she is Director of the Patricia Ritchie Centre for Cancer Care and Research. She’s also a Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Sydney, as well as the founder of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance Australia. For her outstanding contributions to breast cancer research, education, policy and advocacy, Fran was awarded Membership of the Order of Australia in 2008 as well as the Tom Reeve Award for her outstanding contribution to cancer care in 2016.
Initially, Fran got into science with the intention of becoming a vet – at high school, she picked science subjects so that she could go on to study veterinary science at university.
“I never liked maths, but I was good at writing projects, and I had a boyfriend at the time who would then go out and actually do them for me,” she says. “That taught me about collaboration in science very early on!”
While the love for science remained, she ultimately decided against becoming a vet, following her mother’s advice, who thought she was “too soft-hearted to be a vet” and guided her towards medicine. She stressed to Fran that even if she didn’t want to become a clinician, she could always go into research after completing her degree.
The path into breast cancer research wasn’t always a straightforward one from there. Fran didn’t give much thought to research until she failed her physician’s exam, leaving her with a year’s wait to sit it again. She says she was lucky during this time “because one of my bosses, who was an infectious diseases physician, saw that I needed to make something out of the year ahead and suggested we do a research project together”. The project, which she describes as “very small”, consisted of “auditing clinical data about respiratory pathogens and a newly discovered bacteria, then called Branhamella catarrhalis, and this particular publication turned out to be incredibly famous and is often cited as the beginning of a new era”.
With her career bolstered by a successful publication, Fran went on to become a clinician and completed her oncology training at the Royal North Shore Hospital, where she was strongly encouraged by the head of department to get involved in a pursuit outside of clinical practice.
“He said, around here, everyone does something else, [like] teaching or research or medical politics – we’re not the kind of people who just do our jobs,” she remembers. She continues: “Sometimes, things go really badly in the clinical world. You know, you have days where everybody dies, and you think I’m just not achieving anything here.” Research can balance out this frustration, she explains, because it can provide an experience of success outside of clinical practice.
Fran’s interests then led her to supportive care research, with the goal of “trying to find solutions to the strong side effects that many patients with cancer experienced and looking into the emotional and psychological sides of cancer treatment rather than just asking how to treat the disease”. This holistic approach was “very unfashionable back in the 1980s”, in her words, but has since received more recognition.
Breast cancer appeared on Fran’s radar as she was doing her PhD. In 1995, she was asked to attend a meeting of the Cancer Council, where she was approached by the director of the National Breast Cancer Center, which was just being set up at the time.
“She told me they were looking for a young female oncologist to work with them on guidelines and that ended up being another turning point in my career,” she says.
Throughout the years that Fran has been involved in clinical trials, the field has changed significantly. “I’ve seen the sorts of places that we can run clinical trials really diversify in this country. The only places where patients used to be recruited for clinical trials were teaching hospitals, and that’s really changed,” she notes.
This change, together with the rise of telehealth that was precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, also meant that “regional and rural patients have a much greater possibility to be engaged in clinical trials”. An important shift connected to the increased access to trial candidates is the realisation that many common cancers like breast cancer “are in fact a lot of different cancers”, Fran says.
“We are now able to categorise by receptors and sensitivities and all these other factors, and without large scale clinical trials we wouldn’t be able to find these subsets.”
Fran says that while she hasn’t felt disadvantaged or discriminated against as a woman in research, she has, “at times – particularly in my more junior years – felt very disadvantaged in clinical roles being a woman. I was junior and had no power, which of course made it even worse, but I think, hopefully, that’s a thing of the past”. As was common at the time, Fran first completed her clinical training and then embarked on her PhD, which coincided with the birth of her children – “twins, which was very efficient”, she jokes.
Throughout her career, Fran has been surrounded by strong female role models and mentors. She specifically highlights her PhD supervisor, Gillian Shenfield, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Sydney.
“While she didn’t know a lot about cancer drugs, she knew a lot about PhDs, and about how to keep your spirits up through those long years,” Fran says. “By the time I handed in my PhD, my kids were four and a half years old, and I was working full time, so I was getting up at five o’clock in the morning to put finishing touches on the PhD before they’d wake up. But Gillian was incredibly supportive – every time I was ready to throw things out the window, she just picked them up again.”She also mentions the Bill Walsh Lab’s Rozelle Harvie, who helped her with the practical skills necessary for her PhD. “She took me under her wing and taught me lab skills and how to work with cell cultures and didn’t make fun of me for being a physician.”
Fran has supervised many PhD candidates, most of whom, like her, were physicians before commencing their PhDs. “I notice that they went into research because there was a particular question they wanted to answer that came up during their clinical practice”, she says.
Her advice for researchers embarking on their PhD is simple: “Find a question that is important to patients and important to you, because that will also make it more likely to get implemented.” While she concedes that this advice may suit those with clinical experience more than those coming straight from a science degree, she stresses that no matter the starting point, passion is a central element to “keep you going”.