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A whirlwind success: influencing cancer communities, helping people and campaigning for change

Sigourney Bonner (left) and Dr Elisabeth Kendall (right) sitting on a wall looking back in the Fellows Gardens with a row of orange, purple, and cream tulips in the foreground

Founder of Black in Cancer, pioneering Girton postgraduate Sigourney Bonner is researching a PhD in a rare paediatric brain tumour and testing novel compounds to develop new therapies for it. The Mistress, Dr Elisabeth Kendall, caught up with her about her achievements, applying to Cambridge and the motivations behind her work.

Sigourney, what have you been up to recently?

I came to Girton in October 2019, then the following summer I founded Black in Cancer. I was named a Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ honouree for my work in Science and Healthcare (Europe, 2021) and then I won the Brain Tumour Charity Influencer of the Year Award in March 2023. I also met my American husband in Cambridge and got married in 2022.  It’s been an absolute whirlwind!

What are your biggest achievements so far?

I guess others would say the most successful was Black in Cancer’s first ever conference in October 2022. This was an in-person event held at the Science Museum in partnership with Cancer Research UK. It was amazing. We were sold out and had 250 delegates from all over the UK to the US, Europe and Canada, and from all sectors such as academia, industry and patient advocates. It successfully met two of our organisation’s aims:

  • Increase the number of Black cancer researchers.
  • Bring awareness about cancer to the community in ways that are easy to digest. 

From my own point of view, my biggest achievement was creating a community to help people dealing with cancer. When we created Black in Cancer, we had people reach out to us, saying “I have been diagnosed, what do I do?”, “Can you help me?”. It meant people weren’t alone in their cancer journey.

I am also the first person in my family to go to university. So, forging this kind of path and doing a PhD was an absolute unknown to any of my family, or some of my friends. 

What motivates you?

Helping people who otherwise have scant resources or networks. I guess that it is a small piece of social justice, in terms of wanting equity for people, wherever they are from, to be able to meet in the space of equitable healthcare: allowing them to be informed and empowered about their health care decisions. 

A lot of people either don’t know or are just misinformed about health care - like understanding how clinical trials work and why it’s beneficial for you to do one. These trials impact how people then go on either to live with their disease or change their treatment plans.

Also, careerwise it took me a while and a lot of challenges came along the way. I’ve always had a passion for science, so I just want other people to be able to do that too without barriers.

Has there been a moment of illumination, or a specific turning point, not just in your career but in your personal life? 

I went to Leeds University to do Human Physiology and had originally planned to do graduate medicine afterwards. But I got part way through my first year and sat through this really brilliant neuroscience lecture and was like “wow, this is really cool”. I spoke to my lecturer afterwards and she offered me a tour of her lab. She gave me this amazing tour, and said “Well, if you want, when you’re free, you can always come and work with us on a couple of our projects”. I absolutely took up her offer. 

There was then a moment where I had done an experiment and was looking underneath the microscope and I realised “Oh my gosh, I’m the first person to see this!”. This wasn’t like doing experiments in the normal university labs, where you know what the results should be, and everyone is just doing the experiment to get the expected result.  I felt I could be part of a bigger research story and it was exciting. 

Is there anything that you wished you’d known that might be helpful to others?

I wish that somebody had told me that timelines are artificial. You don’t have to achieve that by this age or this by that time. It really doesn’t matter. It’s your own timeline. Getting accolades at a young age doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a really great outcome at the end. It’s about the journey, the things that you learn along the way.  There’s always something to be gained from every experience, no matter what life throws at you.

Are there any tips that you would give to your younger self?

Pursue your passion. It doesn’t matter if it’s not someone else’s passion, or a thing that your family thinks you should do, or that your teachers approve of. Just think, “you’re good at this, you should go and do it”. It’s important to know that it’s not all going to be ‘bells and whistles’. You’re going to have boring bits. Unfortunately, 90% of jobs are like that. You’ve just got to remind yourself, it’s OK, as long as I’m really passionate about the other bit of the job. 

Did you get any bursary or funding that enabled you to do your PhD?

I am fully funded by Cancer Research UK. I was able to start immediately and not worry about money, just focus on and complete my studies. 

Why did you come to study at the University of Cambridge? 

It had never really been on my radar, and it only changed because I came to Cambridge to work for top pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca and Pfizer. As I was already working in the AstraZeneca building in Cambridge, it took all those perceptions and the mystery around Cambridge away. I realised that the other people I was working with were all friendly; they were just regular people, who liked to go and have a beer on the weekend. So, when I thought about applying, I was already working here. 

What attracted you to Girton College? 

I honestly didn’t know anything about applying to Cambridge colleges when I applied. My initial thought on Girton was that it was the furthest one away from my department. But as time has gone on, especially going to inductions, and meeting people, I began to understand its history and heritage. 

Now when I’m out and about I am always really proud to say that I’m at Girton; knowing its incredible history, and that it was the first women’s College for higher education. There is something really special about Girton. You just get a different feeling compared to other Colleges. It’s a pretty happy College to be at. Everyone mixes together: undergraduates, postgraduates and Fellows. It’s just part of the Girton culture. You are never made to feel any different from anyone else: everyone is approachable. There’s a time and a place for the College traditions; it’s not incredibly hierarchical. So, you can start a conversation with anyone – there is no judgement. 

This article was transcribed from an interview held in 2023: words have been edited for publication.

The 2024 Black in Cancer Conference will take place in the US on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 June at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research at the National Institutes of Health Campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Sigourney Bonner performing research in laboratory. Credit: Lloyd Mann (CU Comms)

Credit: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge