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Switching lab coats for formal wear – ICR scientists have “an amazing day” at Buckingham Palace


The ICR was recently awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of its transformational work in breast cancer research. Isy Godfrey spoke with two scientists who had recently attended the prize-giving ceremony at the Palace to learn more about their experience of the day and their work at the ICR.

Posted on 28 March, 2024 by Isy Godfrey
The Queen's Anniversary Prize ceremony inside the Palace

It’s been more than a week since scientists representing The Institute of Cancer Research, London, received a prestigious prize from Her Majesty The Queen, and they are still buzzing from the experience.

On Thursday 22 February, 10 researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and its charity funding partner Breast Cancer Now attended an official ceremony at Buckingham Palace to receive a highly regarded Queen’s Anniversary Prize for the institute’s contribution to breast cancer research.

“It was so surreal, but a lot of fun,” said Holly Tovey when I asked her about the day. Holly is a Senior Statistician in the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit (ICR-CTSU) at the ICR, where she has worked for 10 years and recently completed her PhD.

“My invitation was unexpected, so the news was a big shock initially! But it was a huge privilege to be invited to represent the ICR. It felt nice to be acknowledged for my work and for the ICR as a whole to be recognised for the significant impact it has had in breast cancer research.”

“It was an honour,” agreed Marjan Iravani, Staff Scientist in the Molecular Cell Biology Team in the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the ICR. “I was very proud to be selected to attend the ceremony, and the day itself was amazing.”

Marjan Iravani at Buckingham Palace

Image: Marjan Iravani, Staff Scientist at the ICR, outside Buckingham Palace. Credit: Marjan Iravani.

Representing the breadth of the ICR’s breast cancer research

The Division of Breast Cancer Research consists of 19 teams, which are represented by more than 100 scientists. The Queen’s Anniversary Prize ceremony provided the opportunity for employees from across these teams to come together, discuss their current projects and celebrate each other’s contributions to the ICR’s award.

It is thanks to the efforts of all of these teams that the ICR is able to run its transformational research programme in breast cancer. During the independent review of the nominations, experts, specialists and organisations in the public and non-governmental sectors were impressed by various achievements from across the Division of Breast Cancer Research. These included the division’s practice-changing clinical trials, its contribution to the development of new treatments and genetic tests, and its complex lab work that has significantly improved the understanding of the disease.

Holly Tovey said:

“It was great to speak with colleagues working on breast cancer in different areas of the ICR. Although we share the same ultimate goal of improving the lives of people with breast cancer, we’re all so busy with our various projects that we don’t often get the chance to connect as a group in this way.”

“I never thought I’d shake hands with The Queen!”

The prize-giving ceremony was held in a majestic room, where the winners were announced one by one. When the ICR was called, Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of the ICR, and Professor Andrew Tutt, Head of the Division of Breast Cancer Research and Director of the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the ICR, were handed a medal and certificate by Her Majesty Queen Camilla.

Later, the guests moved to a reception room for drinks and canapés. Here, Queen Camilla spoke with each attendee individually to ask about their contribution to the award and to congratulate them.

“Seeing Buckingham Palace was incredible,” said Marjan Iravani. “The ceremony room was beautiful – fancy is an understatement! Each of us also received a silver badge with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize on it. It’s lovely to have a memento from the special day.”

Holly Tovey’s highlight was meeting The Queen. “I can’t see any other way that would have happened,” she said. “I never thought I’d shake hands with The Queen!”

Holly Tovey and Mark Sydenham at Buckingham Palace

Image: Holly Tovey, Senior Statistician at the ICR-CTSU, and Mark Sydenham, Senior Trial Manager at the ICR-CTSU, outside Buckingham Palace. Credit: Holly Tovey.

Quality clinical trials are key to improving cancer care

Holly Tovey, who is the trial statistician on several of the trials led by the ICR-CTSU – including POETIC-A, HER2-RADiCAL and PHOENIX – was delighted that the award highlighted the crucial links between the ICR-CTSU and other groups within the Division of Breast Cancer Research.

“My background is in maths and statistics rather than biology,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to put my education towards a good cause and do something useful. As soon as I started working on integrating biomarkers with clinical data, something clicked, and I knew this was what I wanted to focus on.”

Holly had been at the ICR for five years at this point, but she decided to go part time for a while so that she could complete a PhD. Her project centred on the use of biomarkers to help identify patients with triple negative breast cancer who would be most likely to respond to certain treatments.

“Learning the biology was a challenge for me at first,” she admitted. “But the great thing about being at the ICR is that you’re surrounded by experts! Working with my supervisor alongside biology researchers and clinicians allowed me to pick it up quickly.”

Every day at the ICR is different

Holly is still pleased with her decision to work at the ICR-CTSU. She said:

“My role is very varied because I’m involved in multiple projects, and I love how much collaboration there is at the ICR. I’m lucky that I get to see the whole research process through. I’m involved at each stage – from developing the study, to interpreting the results, to seeing the outcomes lead to further studies and new developments. Mostly, I like it here because we’re doing the work to make things better, and I know that we’re making an impact.”

Marjan, who has been at the ICR for nearly two decades, also values the variety her role offers. She is responsible for overseeing and managing many different projects in the Molecular Cell Biology group.

“I love everything about my job,” she said. “No two days are ever the same, I’m supporting fantastic research that is making a difference for people with breast cancer, and I get to work and interact with brilliant and talented colleagues.”

Back to the lab

After their day out, it was straight back to work for our scientists. While the prize was a welcome acknowledgement of their hard work and commitment, they know there is still much more work to be done.

Each of the scientists who represented the ICR at the Queen’s Anniversary Prize ceremony has taken the extra morale boost back to their team and channelled their excitement into making progress towards defeating cancer.

The ICR continues to take a team science approach to cancer research – maximising the outputs from across the spectrum of its research. Alongside Marjan and Holly, many other scientists made, and continue to make, an essential contribution to our achievements. That is why the prize truly is shared by all at the institute.


clinical trials breast cancer Breast Cancer Now CTSU Holly Tovey molecular oncology queen's anniversary prize Marjan Iravani
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