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Athene Donald

Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge

QUICK FACTS

Career & Education - selected: 

- Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge

- Master, Churchill College, University of Cambridge

- Chair, Community of Interest, Royal Society Council 

- Member, Science Museum Advisory Board

- Chair, Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel, REF2021

- Founder, Biology and Sot Systems Group, the Cavendish

- Previously, Gender Equality Champion, University of Cambridge

- Previously, Founding chair, Institute of Physics Biological Physics Group

- Previously, Member, Scientific Council of European Research Council 

- Previously, President, British Science Association

- Previously, Chair, Scientific Advisory Council for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports 

- Previously, Postdoctoral Associate, Cornell University


Awards & Recognitions - selected:

- 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, THE

- Honorary Doctorates: University of East Anglia (2011); University of Exeter (2012); University of Sheffield (2013); Swansea University (2014); UCL (2014); Heriot Watt University (2015); Manchester University (2015); Liverpool University (2015); University of Leeds (2016); and University of Bath (2017)

- 2016 Bradford Global Achievement Award

- 2014 Rideal Prize Lecturer, SCI

- 2013 Suffrage Science award, MRC
- 2013 Elected Fellow, European Academy of Science

- 2011 Women of Outstanding Achievement's Lifetime Achievement Award, UKRC
- 2010 Appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Queen's Birthday Honours
- 2010 Faraday Medal, Institute of Physics

- 2009 Women in Science, L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards
- 2009 Elected member, Academia Europaea

- 2005 Mott Medal, Institute of Physics

- 1999 Elected Fellow, Royal Society

- 1994 Inducted Fellow, American Physical Society

- 1989 Boys Prize, Institute of Physics

- 1983 Royal Society University Research Fellow

WHAT DO YOU DO?

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?

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.

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

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

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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?

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 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!)

INSPO / 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.