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Interview with co-founder of Black in Cancer, Sigourney Bell – part one.

We spoke with Sigourney Bell, a third-year PHD candidate at the CRUK Cambridge Institute and co-Founder of Black in Cancer, about her experiences as a researcher.

Sigourney Bell, PhD researcher at Cambridge University and founder of Black in Cancer, working at the CRUK labs, Cambridge. July 2021. Sigourney is researching paediatric brain tumours funded by Cancer Research UK, working on a new chemotherapy treatment for a specific group of tumours for which there is currently no treatment. She also co-founded the charity Black in Cancer in 2020, which aims to strengthen networks and highlight black excellence in cancer research and medicine.

July 18 is Black Leaders Awareness Day, a time to celebrate Black excellence and leadership. To mark the occasion we spoke with Sigourney Bell, a third-year PHD candidate at the CRUK Cambridge Institute and co-Founder of Black in Cancer. Here’s the first part of that conversation in which we spoke about her experiences as a brain tumour researcher.

Click here to read the second part of our conversation, in which we spoke about the Black in Cancer organisation and what they hope to achieve.

Would you like to tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’m doing my PhD on developing new models and therapies for a rare children’s brain tumour called supratentorial ependymoma in Richard Gilbertson’s group at the CRUK Cambridge Institute.

We’re still unsure as to why, but the development of these tumours is initiated when a certain chromosome essentially shatters like glass and then tries to pull itself back together. When this happens, two genes that are usually 73 genes apart end up right next to each other. Normally there would be code that says where one gene ends and the other begins, but this is somehow lost in the process so there’s one huge gene instead – which goes on to drive tumours.

Currently, we don’t have any models that reflect exactly what’s happening during this process, which is why we’re trying to develop them, so we can hopefully understand how to stop this happening.

Why did you want to be involved in brain tumour research?

I first took a keen interest in neuroscience during my undergraduate degree because I was fascinated by how the brain works – it’s just a very cool and amazing organ. It was just incredible to me that all of somebody’s thoughts, ideas and memories were locked in there.

Shortly after I moved into cancer research, my aunt passed away after eight years of living with breast cancer. It was such a journey for her and I knew I didn’t want anybody to suffer in the same way.

Then a project appeared that was the perfect combination of everything I was interested in – the brain and tumour development. After taking on the project, I found out from conversations with my family that my grandfather had actually died from a brain tumour. That just confirmed that this was a space I had to be in. I wanted to help improve the incredibly poor outcomes often experienced by those diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Have you enjoyed being part of the co-creation of our new Beyond Brain Tumours strategy?

It’s been amazing so far. It’s great getting to hear from such a mix of people across the brain tumour community, whether they’ve received a diagnosis themselves, lost someone or are caring for someone with a diagnosis, as well people from the charity sector, cancer research and healthcare professionals.

One thing that’s been especially powerful is seeing the patient voice so clearly represented, hearing about why they want to be involved and what’s important to them. Sometimes researchers can get so caught up in answering a question or solving a specific problem that you can lose track of what’s most important to those affected by the disease.

What have you learned from stepping into the role as a leader in this space?

I’ve learnt a huge amount about my ability to manage and lead a team. Especially when it comes to utilising people’s expertise and experience to help achieve our goals at Black in Cancer.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that it’s okay that I don’t always know best. Our organisation is made up of amazing people who’ve all had very different experiences and been on very different journeys, but it’s always been about valuing every voice. If there are people on our team who haven’t traditionally been given a voice to speak, we want to hear from them.

A lot of our impetus has been about knowing we’re not the experts, we can only speak to our own experiences but what we can do is try to highlight the experiences of everyone around us because we now have a platform to do so.

Something I’m still learning is time management and balance. It’s a challenge to juggle my PhD, Black in Cancer, a long-distance relationship and preparing for my wedding next month.

With Black Leaders Awareness Day on the horizon, who are some of the leaders you admire?

Unfortunately, there are very few within my field that I know of, although I am always discovering new people who I look up to.

I do feel like I’m more inspired by the people around me than some of the great political figures who I admire. The people who work hard to create meaningful change because it’s something they’re deeply passionate about it.

Also, people like my grandparents, who were part of the Windrush generation and experienced so much racial tension and violence – but still managed provide an environment that helped their children and grandchildren to achieve so much. They’re the reason I am where I am today and have had the freedom to do what I’m doing now.

I definitely think those are the people who’ve had the most impact on me, the everyday leaders around me who taught me to be a good, empathetic and encouraging leader.

Click here to read the second part of our conversation with Sigourney Bell, in which we spoke about Black in Cancer and what the organisation is hoping to achieve.