Sunday, February 11, 2024, marks the 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year, the UN has chosen the theme "Women in Science Leadership: A New Era for Sustainability."
To commemorate this event, ESTRO has decided to feature a series of interviews with exceptional women who have played a key role in steering the Society and are shaping the future of Radiation Oncology. Today, we hear from Anna Kirby, ESTRO President.
What inspired your decision to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology? Were there specific experiences or individuals that influenced your choice?
I came across an article about Radiation Oncology in the careers section of the British Medical Journal. Having been a little bit “at sea” about which specialty I was going to choose, I had a moment of absolute clarity when I read that it was possible to combine physics, imaging, maths, patient contact and collaborative decision-making all into one job. I then applied for a junior position at the Royal Marsden, and from the first moment I stepped into that hospital, I knew I was back on the right path.
I was lucky enough to have two inspiring and encouraging consultants for my first job, Dr Assem Rostom and Professor John Yarnold. They trained by example whilst also allowing me to spread my wings very early. It is due to them that I ended up pursuing a career in Radiation Oncology for breast cancer.
In terms of what has kept me in Radiation Oncology, it’s the fact that I work with truly effective and supportive teams who make a positive difference to our patients and to the world every day. Having colleagues one can trust through thick and thin makes the whole of work and life so much more joyful. In breast radiotherapy trials, I have been learning “on the job” for a few years now from Professor Charlotte Coles and Professor Judith Bliss, and I continue to be blown away by their intellectual rigour, robust, transparent and honest leadership and by their sheer ability to get stuff done under the most difficult of circumstances. In a senior leadership role, it becomes ever more important to know who you can chew over the most challenging issues with, and my inner core of most-trusted colleagues and friends know who they are.
Do you anticipate that young women aspiring to follow a similar path will encounter the same challenges? How might their experiences differ, and what positive changes do you foresee for them?
I was educated at an all-girls’ grammar school in the UK followed by an all-female college in Cambridge. It never crossed my mind that girls and women wouldn’t choose a path in science if that’s what they wanted. Now, as the mother of two girls, I can see how much societal and cultural factors will influence subject choice for higher qualifications so I am passionate about my daughters receiving science education that will inspire them and give them the best possible choices.
I would say the challenges as a “woman in science” have come further into my career. Many scientific institutions and constructs remain hierarchical and/or adversarial in structure and style. Female leadership is very different to male leadership and, within gender differences, of course we all have different styles. The most successful organisations, projects, etc., make the best use of the diversity of leadership attributes they have in the individuals at their disposal. But, to my female colleagues in particular, I encourage them to trust their instincts and challenge things that don’t sit right. You can’t go wrong by remaining constructively curious and speaking up for what you believe in.
If you could offer advice to young women aspiring to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology, what key insights or recommendations would you share based on your own experiences?
The trickiest bit is getting “a career in Radiation Oncology” onto the radar of young women in the first place (I met one oncologist in my entire time at medical school and Radiation Oncology is often less than a week of a medical student’s training). So, the advice is to use an interdisciplinary group to engage in activities with schools and universities that will engage our brightest and best to discover (and hopefully join) our professions. Sharing with young people the spectrum of possibilities beyond the day-to-day work is also super important.
Radiation Oncology is an area where it is possible to make a positive difference using skills from basic science to implementation and policy-making, to education and media. So many possibilities and they keep on coming- it’s a hugely fulfilling career and we need to keep communicating that.
Anna Kirby, ESTRO President
Royal Marsden Hospital & Institute of Cancer Research, Sutton, United Kingdom