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Remembering Jane Wardle British Academy

This week, we lost a dear friend, a colleague, a mentor, an intellect and an exceptionally talented researcher – Professor Jane Wardle, one of the UK’s leading health psychologists.

Jane’s contribution to the field of cancer research is hard to overstate. Unlike many of her peers, she came from neither of the traditional cancer research backgrounds – clinical and biological research – but, instead, from the behavioural sciences. And this unique approach led her to assemble one of the largest, most innovative and productive groups in this field worldwide – the CR-UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL.

Since taking over as Director of the Centre more than two decades ago – back then a mere handful of researchers –  Jane had a sustained record of pioneering research that has transformed our current understanding of cancer prevention, screening, early diagnosis and survivorship. Over this time, she mentored more than 40 PhD students, and produced more than 600 peer-reviewed publications.

But mere numbers do not do justice to the impact her research has had.

To take just a few of many prominent examples from throughout her career, her work in collaboration with Professor Wendy Atkin on the UK Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Trial led to its incorporation into the NHS bowel screening programme, while she also helped pave the way for the introduction of the HPV vaccine, exploring its acceptability among parents.

Her pioneering work on obesity and weight control has led to the development of evidence-based methods, such as the Ten Top Tips, to support people in improving their health behaviours to reduce cancer risk.

In the field of early diagnosis, Jane’s achievements are perhaps best exemplified by the Cancer Awareness Measure, now used to measure the impact of a wide array of initiatives aimed at improving awareness of cancer risk factors and symptoms and adapted for use around the world; and in pioneering studies understanding the role of fear and fatalism as people seek help for cancer symptoms – with particular focus on social-economic inequalities.

Undoubtedly, Jane’s contribution to the whole NAEDI movement, and our thinking about cancer diagnosis, has been pivotal.

And more recently, in the field of survivorship, Jane set in motion ongoing work with potential to change ‘usual care’ for cancer survivors, understanding their health behaviours and needs. She was an active, expert member of the NCRI’s lifestyle and behaviour change clinical study group – an essential part of the UK’s cancer research infrastructure. And Jane was one of only a handful of researchers to have been elected to both the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

But to many of us, Jane was more than a brilliant researcher, she was so much more: an incredible friend, mentor, mother, grandmother and wife. She had so much time for people and was fun, insightful, humble, gentle, caring – and so very wise. She was the person many of us would choose to share their problems, frustrations and innermost secrets with, simply because she had an uncanny knack of getting straight to the nub of the issue in the most non-judgemental way, and articulately providing any number of elegant solutions, when none had previously seemed possible.

Jane also had quite a wicked sense of humour when she chose to reveal it. She shared so much of herself and all that were privileged to know her well, benefitted hugely from her generosity. She also possessed an immense capacity for new ideas and for sheer hard work – a powerhouse in a tiny frame, with such a distinctive and musical ‘hello’.

And Jane absolutely adored her family, was inseparable from her beloved Andrew and always spoke so tenderly and proudly of her children and, more recently, about her grandchildren too. When Dorsey arrived, in her own inimitable style, Jane was quite clear that she was unimpressed by fancy ‘grandmother-type names’ and determined she would be called Jane, thank you very much.

After being diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, Jane wrote eloquently about the impact it had on both her understanding of her work, and family life – the professional and personal. Her article, published in 2002, concludes:

“I hope that we are in a new era where patients and doctors will work together to understand and treat disease, and people with a foot in both camps might be able to make a special contribution.”

Jane’s contribution to our lives, both professionally and personally, was more than special. She is irreplaceable, and as you can see in the comments below, from the scores of heartfelt tributes that have poured in since the news broke, she will be missed tremendously by so many.

Our thoughts and sincerest sympathies are with Andrew, Lucy, Matt and all Jane’s extended family.

Sara Hiom, Director of Early Diagnosis and Cancer Intelligence

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Dorina Cadar, UCL November 8, 2015

It is extremely sad to learn about the passing of Professor Jane Wardle.
In 2012, when UCL was reorganising the space for PhD students and researchers, she offered me a desk within her research group to complete writing my thesis on lifestyle behaviours and cognitive decline. That was the time, when I learned about the world of Jane Wardle Research group.
Jane was known for sharing with her students her enthusiasm, motivation and wisdom. She not only brought her love to her group, she also imparted on her students one of the highest standards of academic research. Most of her students (also my colleagues and friends) are now pursuing successful academic careers.
Jane was a first class mentor and a brilliant researcher. She was a true force and a pioneer in health psychology bringing different perspectives of public health, health behaviours and prediction risks into a combined approach. To me, she was an outstanding academic and a role model.
Her legacy to the field could be cemented by creating a “Jane Wardle Fellowship” or “Jane Wardle Prize”.

Romano Endrighi - NIH Bethesda US November 5, 2015

I was truly saddened of learning of Jane’s passing. I knew Jane and most of the wonderful and talented researchers at the HBRC during my time at UCL. She inspired so many people and run the largest and most prolific group of health psychology researchers in Europe. My thoughts are with Andrew and their family in this difficult and trying time.

Marta Jackowska Roehampton University November 5, 2015

Professor Jane Wardle’s death has broken so many hearts. There are no words that can possibly describe how truly remarkable she was. She transformed lives on a huge scale starting from her pioneering health behaviour research (among other topics) to the lives of those who were privileged to work or study with her. Jane’s life was way, way too short but she managed to make the world we live in a better place. Jane gave me my first ever research job because she believed in me before I did. Thank you Jane. Today at her funeral we found out that Jane loved fireworks, it will be impossible for me now not to think of her each time I see them.

Lizzy Lubczanski (nee Leigh), Swiss Re November 5, 2015

I very recently came across an old email that made me realise that I owe Jane for even more than I realised. She encouraged Andrew to give me a job even though I wasn’t selected for the one I’d applied for. I then spent 4 years in the Psycholobiology group and Andrew got me through the PhD that’s enabled me to be where I am today. I was privileged to attend Jane’s very sad but very beautiful funeral today; she really was one in a million, and will be missed widely and deeply. My heart goes out to Andrew, her children and all who knew her.

Claire Mimnagh October 30, 2015

It came as a huge shock to find out about Jane. How can someone who I remember as being so full of life, no longer be here? I worked at UCL for three years as course administrator for the MSc Health Psychology. My memories of Jane are of someone who was profoundly impressive, warm and very funny.

I’m incredibly grateful to both Jane and Andrew for the opportunities they gave me to get involved in research and for sparking my love of science and Health Psychology. It was quite literally, life changing. My thoughts are with Andrew and their family and everyone in the HBRC.

Claire Mimnagh, Research Assistant and Consultation Skills tutor, Manchester Medical School.

Astrid Mayer October 30, 2015

Very sorry to hear the sad news. I have worked with Jane and her group on a number of projects over the years. She has been truly inspirational.

Julietta Patnick. Formerly Director NHS Cancer Screening Programmes October 28, 2015

Like everyone I have been horribly shocked by this terrible news. She is a terrible loss to us all. I loved listening to Jane. Whenever she was round the table, there would always be a point in the discussion where she just made you think and forget your own agenda. As a lecturer, she would present a new slant on old data, or explain a new concept in a way which made it clear and understandable. She always got my brain going and I really valued her interest in my area of work. This early loss seem so unjust

Sophie Pilgrim October 28, 2015

I’m so sorry to hear this – Jane was also a wonderful help for CRUK fundraising – no least helping us to secure a £3million donation from a Foundation towards our behavioural research.

Jenny Fidler October 27, 2015

I worked in the HBRC for nearly ten years, leaving in 2011. In my first week in post, a colleague gave me Jane’s 2002 guardian article, then very recently written. It was a very intimate insight into Jane’s life for such a new starter and at the time quite a challenge to read. However, over time the contents of the article, although remaining in my desk drawer, left my conscious memory as Jane powered on in her tiny frame running the unit with determination, clarity and utter brilliance. I spent many late nights and early mornings in the unit and Jane would pad around in her bare feet (silent, so no one knew she was about to dance in with that musical hello and a swish of a floaty skirt) for a chat before getting down to the important stuff of how something could be done so much better! Yes there were periods of illness, when staff would go for meetings with Jane at home, but to our awareness these were few and far between and rarely impacted upon her ability to carry on working. That this day would come therefore has come as a great shock to me because it never seemed to be an option that Jane wouldn’t be there at the helm and her death is an unquantifiable loss to healthy psychology and cancer research, not to mention to her family, friends and colleagues. My thoughts go out to Andrew and her family, and to the current HBRC team who must be floundering and quite daunted by the sad task ahead as they continue her work. I am so grateful to her for giving me that first opportunity and teaching me so much, for all the advice and support over those years, for challenging track changes documents, for fabulous conference experiences together, for being a shoulder to cry on, for her wonderful witty sense of humour and the reassurance that I’m not the only one who sometimes needs a little bite of chocolate to get going in the morning. Thank you Jane.

Clare Llewellyn October 26, 2015

I cannot begin to describe what Jane meant to me. I don’t simply owe her my career – she raised me as a scientist. I will never forget the life-changing moment when I first met her. She gave a lecture on the Psychology of Cancer when I was doing my MSc in Health Psychology at UCL in 2006. Her charisma, unbridled passion, and razor-sharp intellect had me hooked. I fell in love with science; and realized that I wanted to work with Jane in any capacity for as long as I could.

What set her apart from other brilliant scientists and mentors was not just her unwavering loyalty to every member of her group, but her total commitment to any research being undertaken; however small or large. The level of attention she offered in each meeting was almost unnerving; at that moment you felt that you were the only person in the world, and that there was nothing more important than your current question, concern or idea. She combined all of this with a wicked sense of humour, warmth, openness, humility, and an incredible ability to lighten any conversation. I will miss her terribly, but will always be grateful for the privilege of having had her for nine years as both my mentor and my friend.

Clare Llewellyn, Lecturer at the Health Behaviour Research Centre, UCL

Andrea Smith, PhD Student, Health Behaviour Research Centre, UCL October 26, 2015

I already miss Jane. It was an immense privilege to have known her and to have had her as my PhD supervisor. There was something wonderfully unique about her in the way that, even though she was a world-class scientist, she remained so down to earth and human in her contacts. Whenever I nervously requested a meeting she would respond nearly immediately and try to arrange a mutually convenient time and place; and this is merely a hint of how generous she was with her commitment to guiding her students through their projects. After every conversation with Jane, I would frantically try to scribble down all the points we had discussed, acutely aware that her insights were too valuable to forget.

Jane’s determination, wit and ability to make sense of people’s innermost feelings were what made her an amazing inspiration to anybody who knew her. I will always treasure my memories of her and will do my best to harness her enthusiasm and what she taught me to complete our current projects and to inspire any future research.

Jinata Subba October 26, 2015

I met Jane a year ago and briefly worked for her as a research administrator earlier this year before her treatment began. She was nothing short of spectacular in making me feel welcome and comfortable. She was a power house and it was very obvious what an inspiration she was to so many but the greatest thing about her was that, regardless of hectic schedule, she always had time for everyone. She listened to me talk – teary eyed – about the earthquake back home and this was on day one. Even the most mundane conversations with her were concluded with a little laughter and her emails were always decorated with a kiss because that’s just the kind of lovely she was. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to surround myself with her positivity (however brief) and will always be thankful for the light she shared.

Jinata Subba
PA to Prof Andrew Steptoe
Research Administrator – Psychobiology Group and HBRC