Professor Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College; she has spent most of her life at Cambridge, including studying there for her first and second degrees.

Her area of research is soft condensed matter, particularly at the interface with biology. She has been awarded numerous prizes for her research from various bodies and won the 2009 L’Oreal / UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate for Europe. From 2010-14 she was the University’s Gender Equality Champion and has been Director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative since 2006. She also chaired the Athena Forum from 2009-13 and served on the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Network. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 and was appointed a DBE in 2010.

Q: Why did you choose science, at a time when girls tended to be steered away from scientific careers?

A: No one told me science was an odd choice!  I went to a girls’ grammar school.  I find it disconcerting how many successful female scientists do go to girls’ schools; evidence from the Institute of Physics shows that more girls progress with Physics in such schools. I had no brothers and no-one said Physics was a strange thing for me to do.  And I had a very good Physics teacher – she would stretch me.

Churchill College bicycle park photo
Churchill College bicycle park

Q: How did your early career unfold?  What were the challenges?  Did you experience any discrimination?

A: After my first degree I began to study for a PhD and was still completing it when I got married.  My husband is a mathematician and we wanted to go to the USA, so I started work on a post-doc at Cornell.  I was the first woman post-doc in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering there.  By American standards I was very young, as I had completed my PhD in three years and most Americans take significantly longer than that.  In short, it was not a success; but as my husband was still working on his PhD I had to find another job using the same techniques of electron microscopy and so switching the class of materials I worked on.  Working for my new professor was a transformative experience: he mentored me brilliantly and encouraged me to think of academia as a career.  The research rapidly began to yield results and we started to write papers.  It taught me that if someone is not doing well, they’re not necessarily stupid, a thought process I hope I have applied to my own students subsequently.

Q: You progressed to build a very distinguished career.  You won the Faraday Medal and became a Fellow of the Royal Society and are now Master of Churchill College.  Could you expand a little on these achievements?

A: I was very lucky.  We came back to Cambridge and my husband gained a Fellowship.  I also got a Fellowship and after that a lectureship at a time when they were very hard to come by.  I inherited a project someone who’d just left the university had set up – he’d secured a large grant to support it.  This took me into different territories and I made my mark by pushing the boundaries to work in unconventional areas.  This was difficult, but over time succeeded and, with hindsight, I think it was beneficial to my career. One of the things I hoped to do was normalise the idea in the UK that physicists could collaborate with biologists to do new things.  I therefore moved my work towards living systems.

Q: You’re married with two children.  Would you say it is therefore possible to ‘have it all’?  Did you have to put your career on hold at certain times?  Did ‘juggling’ motherhood and work place any strains or inner conflicts on you?

A: I do have two children – both now adults – and I accomplished this with a very supportive partner.  My husband had looked set for a high-flying career, but I got a job before he did and because we wanted to stay in Cambridge, he took a step back.  He was unsalaried for longer than we originally intended, and although I certainly took my turn at looking after my children, he was their principal carer.  Can you have it all?  I think there are always compromises to be made.  We had no social life.  Everyone in this situation has to make choices and the right ones will be different for each family.  In my generation it was almost unheard-of for the man to take the stay-at-home role.  It is different now: couples make this kind of decision right from the outset.  When my children were tiny, practically no academic took maternity leave (after all there were very few women academics!), but on the other hand it was possible to work from home.  I was able to work very flexibly.  Now, with the formal availability of flexible working – not an option then –  individuals in academia are expected to declare exactly what they are doing when and therefore in some senses the pressures are worse and the choices made more visible.  Additionally, academics today need all sorts of other skills.  They may need to engage with such diverse issues as ethics and patenting: there is little forgiveness in the system.  However, it’s true that as a family we had a narrower life than we would have had without the children.  I made the conscious decision not to travel much, so I didn’t attend high prestige events around the world.  This may have had a temporary effect on my profile, but it gave me more time to write papers, etc. and to engage with my research group.

Professor Dame Athene Donald Photo
Professor Dame Athene Donald

Q: You are a strong advocate for encouraging today’s young women to choose careers in science.  How do you do this?  Is there anything you have learned during your career that you think it would help them to know?

A: I do talk to young women a great deal.  I also go into schools to give talks, though I don’t think this is necessarily as helpful as it was in the past – if I were twenty-five, from their point of view I might look more convincing and relevant to them.  I have a blog and write on it quite a lot.  I try not to make it only about women in science but to include information about other topics such as self-help.  Men might need this, too, but women find it especially cheering.  Increasingly I give talks about my career and the other things you can do with science besides becoming an academic.  I try to reassure people that if things are not going the right way, this isn’t necessarily terminal.

Q: What would you say is your greatest achievement?

A: Making the interface of Physics with Biology more respectable: it’s not specific like Nobel Prize material, but being able to change attitudes by championing it is so important.  I’m currently trying to get research funders to think harder about not putting projects into disciplinary silos.

Q: What are you planning to do next?

A: I will retire formally from the University at the end of next academic year, but I’ll go on being the Master of Churchill College.  I’ll continue my work with the Royal Society and carry on writing.  I don’t have a burning desire to climb Everest or any of the typical ‘retirement’ aims!

Q: Do you have a personal message for those reading this post?

A: I think it’s important for anyone setting out to recognise that you don’t need to know your ultimate goal: changing direction is OK!  People will support you and you need to create a network of peers and people ahead of you in their careers when the going gets tough.  It’s not possible to have it all mapped out.

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