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Athene donald DBE FRS

Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge

 

And - Master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge

Do not let other people tell you that what you want to do is 'not for girls'.

What do you do?

"Churchill College, part of the University of Cambridge, has a particular (and unique) emphasis on the STEM subjects and we work hard to encourage diversity in our student population."

As a professor much of my life has been taken up with research. This has focussed on studying the relationship between the structure of complex but soft/squishy systems (such as foods and cells from our bodies) and their properties. I've used a lot of microscopy - not just different types of light microscopy but also electron microscopy, which permits you to examine the structure at even higher magnifications than light does. I've also used X-ray scattering and diffraction.

 

Research is all about curiosity. You never know what you're going to find out and often the answer is nothing. When things go right it is absolutely absorbing, exciting and can be all-consuming. But those moments are rare. More often one just chugs along, adding new facts to the lexicon of what is known about a particular system.

 

More recently I have been doing less research and been more involved in roles trying to create a world in which other people can thrive in science. This has been in part through my work championing the importance of diversity in STEM: I was the University of Cambridge's first gender equality champion for instance. I write a lot on the subject too, on my own personal blog and in mainstream media.

 

I am also involved with committees that are concerned with the research funding landscape.

Why did you choose this field?

"I felt [Physics] explained the world to me in the way I wanted to understand it."

It feels as if as soon as I was introduced to Physics as a subject at school I fell in love with it. I may have moved closer to biology as my career progressed, but I am still a physicist at heart, wanting to understand things as quantitatively as possible and to gain predictive power for what else might happen. I also always knew, from about age 18, I wanted to work on subjects that had day-to-day relevance rather than that were 'exotic'. I think my choice of research topics shows that I have stuck with that desire.·

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I was very shy as a child. My mother described me as not being able to say boo to a goose. I find it extraordinary to see that it is possible for confidence to grow throughout life. That people will listen to me and not laugh. Of course I still suffer from impostor syndrome but that shy child who hardly spoke has long since disappeared.

Why do you love working in STEM?

"Research can be so endlessly exciting and challenging."

Now I don't do my own hands-on experiments I have to get my joy from feeling that I am helping to create a world in which other people can feel that excitement and thrive. And if I hear that some advice I gave, or a talk, has made a difference to some young woman, then that is a real boost.

Best advice for the next generation

STEM subjects open so many doors to brilliant careers, if you have curiosity then go for it. Do not let other people tell you that what you want to do is 'not for girls' or 'are you sure?' Follow your dreams and see where they can take you (and work hard!)

Fun fact

One of the more unusual experiments I did was to cook starch in a synchrotron - a big and massively expensive national facility producing X-rays - to understand what happens to each granule during cooking. It was very informative but some of my more purist colleagues thought starch was not a suitable material for a physicist to study because it was so complicated.