In this interview, we hear about working as a senior in-house lawyer within the medical research charity UK Biobank.

Senior Counsel, Kathrine Bancroft, is an avid triathlete whose interest in health and wellness clearly features prominently both in and outside work. Kathrine tells us more about UK Biobank’s contribution to the advancement of modern medicine and human health, their activities in the fight against COVID-19, and what keeps her engaged as an in-house lawyer there. Randomly, we also discover what a Crumhorn is! Every day a learning day.

 

For those not familiar with it, can you please tell us a little more about UK Biobank and the work it does?

UK Biobank was established as a medical research charity in 2003 and between 2006 and 2010 recruited 500,000 people (known as “participants”) to take part in the project. The participants provided a huge amount of information about themselves, underwent physical measures (height, weight, blood pressure etc.), provided blood, urine and saliva samples (for future analysis), and agreed to have their health followed via linkage to their health – related records (those held by GPs and secondary healthcare providers).
The data about the participants is stored by UK Biobank, is de-identified (by the removal of any data which could identify an individual participant) and is then made available to researchers who can apply to use the data to undertake health – related research that is in the public interest.

UK Biobank continually enhances the data in the resource and is a major contributor to the advancement of modern medicine and treatment. It has enabled several scientific discoveries that improve human health and most recently has been involved in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What attracted you to join UK Biobank’s legal function?

I initially joined UK Biobank as I was attracted to working for a project whose ultimate objective is so worthwhile. After a brief spell away I returned because UK Biobank is such a great place to work – both in terms of what it does and the people who are involved.

Why is it a good place to work, from the perspective of an in-house lawyer?

As an in-house lawyer it’s a bit of a cliché to say that no two days are the same, but it really is true at UK Biobank. The nature of the project and the number of different things going on at any one time make it a really interesting and challenging place to be.

One day I might be answering a query about data protection (UK Biobank is the controller of detailed health information relating to half a million people), another day I may be negotiating a contract with a supplier of scanning equipment and another speaking to one of our linkage providers about the data they provide to us about our participants. In addition, I work with some really fantastic people – the team are drawn from a wide variety of professional, scientific and academic backgrounds and I learn from them all on a daily basis.

How has UK Biobank developed during your time in the legal department?

The organisation has grown rapidly since I first joined in 2014. Back in 2014 UK Biobank had only been making data available to researchers for 2 years. Since then, more and more data has been added to the resource and made available to researchers (including imaging data and genetic data) and more and more researchers have been approved to use UK Biobank data (there are now over 20,000 registered researchers). There is an increasing amount of research being undertaken using UK Biobank data which is proving useful in the understanding of diseases that affect so many people such as cancer and heart disease.

What do you find is the most interesting aspect of your role as an in-house lawyer there?

The thing I find the most challenging (and also the most interesting) is the science behind what UK Biobank is actually doing. For example, we have recently been sequencing the whole genomes of our participants – essentially turning blood samples into useable data. Understanding what this process involves and how the generated data will be stored is a specialist area – luckily, UK Biobank has teams of experts who can help me make sense of these processes.

What particular projects requiring in-house legal support have you enjoyed working on most?

Recently UK Biobank has been involved in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in April 2020 the government asked UK Biobank to set up a study to measure the extent of coronavirus infection in different regions across the UK. This involved UK Biobank recruiting 10,000 of its current participants and 10,000 of their children and grandchildren and asking them to provide blood samples each month for 6 months. UK Biobank then tested these samples for COVID-19 antibodies.

I was heavily involved in the legal aspects of this project which included assisting with the ethics application, considering the procurement aspects (given we weren’t able to follow the standard public procurement timeline) and negotiating contracts to support various elements of the study including sample assay.

It was a real challenge to set everything up against the backdrop of the first lockdown (and of course the joys of home schooling) and it was a real team effort. The study was a success – fast forward to February this year and our Chief Scientist Professor Naomi Allen reported the results of the study on the BBC news.

Why might a qualified legal professional look to join UK Biobank?

As the most detailed, long-term prospective health research study in the world there is no end of interesting and challenging work in the legal department.

What originally attracted you to being a lawyer?

I studied law at University and really enjoyed it and so becoming a solicitor was the next natural step.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor in your legal career?

“The more you do, the more you can do” – this was something my trainee supervisor at Hammonds (Jane Haxby) said to me back in 2003. It is so true and applies equally both in and outside work.

What piece of practical advice would you give to someone else looking to join the legal profession?

Get as much work experience in as many different types of organisation as you can. The broader the range of experience you can get the better you will be able to determine the legal career that suits you best.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Lots of cycling, running and (now pools are open again) swimming. I started doing triathlons about 10 years ago and got the bug. In 2015 I qualified to represent Great Britain at Triathlon and Duathlon as part of the Age Group team which was a great experience. Now I’m a bit older I’m focusing on longer distance races and will be doing a half Ironman at the end of May.
Aside from the training, my two young children keep me fairly busy.

What have you learned during the lockdowns?

Lockdown has taught me that I am not cut out to be a teacher – I definitely made the right decision pursuing a career in law.

What song was No1 when you qualified?

I had to look this up… apparently it was James Blunt “You’re Beautiful”

What was your first non-legal job?

I used to work as a lifeguard at the weekends when I was doing my A Levels. I only had to jump into the pool fully clothed once (and I’m pleased to report for nothing serious!)
What’s the most interesting/enjoyable book you’ve read in the last year.
I recently read “The Diet Myth” by Tim Spector. It’s not a book about weight loss, but a book about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health and specifically our gut health. Gut health is something scientists are becoming increasingly interested in and – who knows – maybe UK Biobank may have a role to play in its understanding it in the future.

Do you have a hidden talent? 

I can play the Crumhorn…!! The Crumhorn is a wind instrument which looks like an upside-down walking stick and was popular during the Renaissance period. At school I played a number of different instruments and was part of an Early Music Consort where we learnt to play all sorts of old instruments including the Crumhorn!

Favourite film or play.

I’m not sure I have a favourite film, but I love 80’s films, so probably something like Back to the Future or the Labyrinth which I used to watch on repeat growing up.

Favourite gadget.

I’m lost without my Garmin but the Nespresso comes a close second.

Favourite restaurant.

Staying loyal to the North West I’d have to say L’Enclume in Cartmel – I love the ethos of everything being sourced locally and obviously the food is fantastic. My local Indian (Bombay to Mumbai in Bramhall) comes a close second and has the added advantage of being within walking distance of my house.

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

Despite having been to a fair few far flung destinations I love Europe – it would be a close call between Tuscany, the South of France and Mallorca (for the cycling of course!). Where next? I’d happily go on holiday almost anywhere post COVID.

Your default tipple is…?

I love a Negroni.

Most annoying phrase you’ve heard in the workplace?

“Let’s touch base”.

To feature a member of your in-house team in our Insights blog, please get in touch. We donate £50 to the legal profession’s mental health charity LawCare for every interview we publish on a member of our in-house legal network.