Alumnus of the Month: Françoise Meunier

posted in: 70th anniversary, alumni | 0

Belgian Fulbright Grantee, 1976-1978
Fulbright Project: Infectious Diseases in Cancer Patients, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City


Dr. Françoise Meunier is from Ath, in Wallonia. She trained as an oncologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and also holds multiple Master’s in Medical Oncology and Internal Medicine as well as a PhD. She was the head of the Infectious Diseases Department at Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels until 1991, when she became the General Director of the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC), a post she held until 2015. In 1977 and 1978, she was a Fulbright grantee at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she researched fungal infections and how to treat them in cancer patients. Today she is Director, Special Projects, of the EORTC, championing the rights of cancer survivors. You can watch a TEDx talk she gave on the topic here.

Dr. Judge interviewed Dr. Meunier at her office at the EORTC on 27 October 2017. They spoke about her research at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the work she has done at EORTC, and her current work. Dr. Meunier also shared some of her most striking memories from her time in New York, and reflected on the Fulbright program’s impact more generally. The following excerpts their the interview have been edited for clarity.

How did your Fulbright grant affect your career?
I got to know a whole new network of key investigators in the field of infectious diseases, who helped me a lot to become international, if you want. In a practical sense, after I returned to Belgium, I tried to implement methodology and research that I had experienced in the US.

My time in the US changed my perception, my vision, my sense of being international, understanding that even those in a single region or small country can really have an impact. So it’s an eye opener, I would say. It’s an eye opener to go and see outside, different cultures, different processes, different way of doing things, of thinking. It’s an openness which can be transferable to the European framework where we have a lot of different cultures, different people, different ways of addressing life. You know, it’s difficult to measure the real impact. You evolve with what you encounter. I am sure it was a tremendous push that means that–and everybody says this–you don’t come back the same as you left.

What are some of your strongest memories of your time as a grantee?
Each time we had friends or family visiting, we took the boat to Staten Island and back. Oh, at that time the Towers were there, and so it was fantastic to cross and go back and forth to Staten Island. That I did numerous times. Coming by boat from Staten Island was truly an experience.

At that time–this is a vivid memory–sometimes on saturday I would go shopping like every young woman and it was not that common in ‘76 to have a young woman who was a medical doctor and working in a large institution. So when I was shopping in Bloomingdale’s–in US you don’t survive if you don’t have your I.D. card–so when I was going to pay for something I had to show my I.D. Often they’d look at me and say, “You are not an MD!” [Interviewer: they would actually say that to your face?] FM: Yes! They would look at me and they’d say–because I was young, probably–”You are not an MD!” I’d say, “Yes, I am an MD, look at this!” [Laughter] That is a souvenir I have, yes.

Dr. Meunier went on to describe how much she enjoyed some of the cultural differences surrounding foods, but not because they were unknown to her:

What has your experience been of the Fulbright alumni community?
When you come back and you say that you have been a Fulbright grantee, immediately among us there is a sense of solidarity, I would say, and recognition. It’s a sense of belonging. When you meet someone and find out they were a Fulbrighter, conversation is easy. “Ah, you were Fulbright! Ah, me too!” It’s a sense of community, which is rather strong. Even if you studied a totally different discipline and went in totally different years, if you were not together at the same city and not the same time, there’s still a sense of recognition.

What is Fulbright’s world in today’s world, particularly with the rise of online and distance learning programs?
It’s true that you can do a lot of things online. That’s true not only for training and teaching and relationships, but nothing replace a face-to-face and hands on. It’s true in all the disciplines, not only in research. Nothing will ever replace face-to-face. I don’t think Fulbright is out of date, not at all. It’s true that for me, it was a real cultural shock, because I had never been to the US before 1976, when I left. And now if you have been three times in the States before your grant, the shock may not be there, but still being in immersed in a–I speak only about what I know, and that is medical research–being immersed in a big, major research facility in the US, it gives another dimension.

Dr. Meunier’s final words on her Fulbright grant:

To be clear, she adds, It’s a lot of work. I did not get to where I am just because I am a Fulbrighter, but it changes the way you work, you behave—yes, even the way you organize your life.