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Dr. Athene Donald: Experimental Physicist, University of Cambridge


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2013/06/28

1. What is your current position at the University of Cambridge?

Professor of Experimental Physics. I am also the University’s Gender Equality Champion and a Deputy Vice Chancellor (mainly an honorary title which permits me to confer degrees)

2. Where did you grow up?  What was youth like for you?  What effect do you feel this had on your career path?

I was born in London. Neither of my parents had been to University, although my Grandfather had, and there was always an expectation that I would. I attended a single sex school which, probably unusually for a girls’ school of its day, had an excellent Physics teacher, something I am sure was very significant.

I had an older sister and we all lived with my maternal grandparents. My parents’ marriage broke up when I was 10 so I lived in a household of 4 women and 1 man (my grandfather).  I think the most significant thing was the fact that I was always surrounded by books and with this expectation that if I wanted to go to university that I should. It was just taken for granted, particularly since I did well at school.

I was jumped up a year at school. My birthday is in May and during my secondary schooling (which is normally from 11-18) I was nearly 2 years younger than the oldest child in my year. I am sure this was significant as I didn’t fit in well with my ‘contemporaries’, probably because during adolescent such a big age gap can make a big difference. Probably this encouraged me to keep my head down and work hard, because I wasn’t going to fit in anyhow.

No one in my family were particularly interested in science, nor was it a subject I remember being discussed in a serious way. I did get taken to the Science Museum (in London) but I didn’t really connect that with my lessons at school or with any idea of a future career.

The hobbies I had were ornithology – which perhaps reflects an interest in ‘systematising’ but again, it was just what I did for fun and I didn’t connect it with anything I did at school – and music. There was a lot of music during my growing-up and as a teenager I was very involved both with singing in choirs and playing in orchestras. I played the viola and, since not many children do play this instrument, I had lots of opportunities to play with seriously musical peers. It was a major source of relaxation and also a way for me to socialise with other girls – both older and younger – given the trouble I had with fitting in with my ordinary classmates.

2. Where did you acquire your education?  How did you come to the University of Cambridge?

My mother says I declared at 7 I was going to go to Cambridge University to read maths. This is probably an apocryphal story, but I think somehow I always fixed on the idea of going to Cambridge. It was where my grandfather had been after all (he read Classics there before the 1st World War), so there must have been some sense of connection. I first had Physics lessons when about 13 and seem to have known almost at once that this was what I wanted to study.

Cambridge University back then was overwhelmingly male, as none of the colleges was yet mixed. I am not sure I really thought very hard about that. One had to do a special entrance exam. I was very badly prepared for this as my school had been participating in a pilot course of study in Physics, with only about 7 schools pursuing this exam at A level. So I knew little of what others knew but lots of other stuff, particularly ‘modern’ physics. As well as an entrance exam for Cambridge, the colleges interviewed prospective students. Probably then I came across as much stronger for exactly the same reasons: I knew stuff they weren’t expecting interviewees to know. For whatever reason I was accepted by 2 colleges (there were only 3 that admitted women), and I chose to go to Girton, the college I had always had set my mind on.

3. Was Physics always ‘in the cards’ for you?  Were you mathematically precocious in childhood and adolescence? 

I always was highly competent at maths, but I don’t think I was precocious in the sense that I didn’t pursue it beyond the classroom in any way that I remember. I just got on with it. But physics was just something that clicked with me. I did then start reading around the subject, certainly by the time I was 16 or so, but I had no clear idea of what it might mean as the start of a career. In my day, and in my school, I got no careers advice and I simply didn’t think seriously about life beyond university. All I knew was that I wanted to study physics at university; it just seemed the logical thing to do.

4. Did you have a childhood hero?

No, I don’t think I thought in those terms at all. I had neither heroes nor heroines. Nor did I really think of gender as an issue either. I am sure that was in large part because I just didn’t really know any teenage boys – other than beyond the orchestra I played in and we simply got on with our music. When I met a bunch just before I started at university who asked me what I was going to study, their reaction for the first time told me it was odd for a girl to want to do physics. I don’t think, having been at an all-girls school, that had really crossed my mind before. There was no one to discourage me.

5. What was your original dream?  If it changed, how did it change?

I also didn’t have a dream. I didn’t look ahead. If I thought about the future I just assumed that I would marry, perhaps a few years after college, and have a family. There was no expectation of a career as such. Having a career in academia was just something that happened; I never looked more than a year or two ahead. I was probably well into my 20s before I even started thinking about this. By then I was married (I got married to a mathematician during my PhD – and we’re still married!) and the complications of trying to sort out two lives to the satisfaction of both reared their heads. It is never easy.

6. What have been your major areas of research? 

My field of research has constantly evolved. That is how I like it. I started off studying metals, using electron microscopy to study their internal structure. The technique of electron microscopy has remained a constant during my research career. After my first, and very unsuccessful postdoc in the USA (Cornell University) I switched to apply electron microscopy to plastics. It wasn’t till that point, after 5 years of research, that I really fell in love with it. I had an incredibly productive 2 further years in the USA and then returned to Cambridge. Over the years I have moved from the study of largely synthetic polymers to naturally occurring biopolymers including those relevant to food. I researched the internal structure of starch granules for many years, during that time building up collaborations both with industry and with plant geneticists. Then I moved on to study protein aggregation, a subject relevant both to food and to those studying many neurodegenerative diseases. I have continued to do electron microscopy, developing a technique which allows one to study samples without the dehydration usually necessary; this approach is known as environmental scanning electron microscopy and we did a lot of development work on it, analysing how to interpret images and seeing just how far we could push the technique.  We also applied it to a wide variety of biological samples from bacteria to plants. This move into biological problems was also reflected in a modest research activity in cellular biophysics.

Overall the sorts of physics I do can be summed up as soft matter physics moving into biological physics. When I started working on starch, physicists doing this sort of work were regarded as very unusual. Now it is much more main-stream physics.

7. What is your most recent research?

As I say, I have moved systematically towards biological problems. The work we do on protein aggregation has implications for various neurodegenerative diseases, although I am always very careful to spell out we won’t be curing any diseases ourselves, we simply hope to provide some basic underpinning knowledge. But, as a physicist, I try to look for generalities of behaviour, particularly since we are interested in what happens when biological control is lost. In our case we typically use heat to study the response when proteins are denatured, which of course is totally non-physiological, but in the diseases of old age proteins also lose their native structures due to loss of biological control, so the parallels are fairly close.

8. If you had unlimited funding and unrestricted freedom, what research would you conduct?

I would like to be able to get much closer to biology and work in truly interdisciplinary teams on the subjects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.

9. There exist many cases of silence, even denigration, about the lack of women in science, especially young women.  In fact, a case of speculation comes to mind on the part of an ex-President of Harvard – no less, Dr. Larry Summers, about innate average differences between men and women potentially explaining the difference of the sexes’ scientific prominence.  To me, it seems silence on debating these issues exacerbates the problem.  Given your involvement in advocacy for women in science, does silence exacerbate the problem?  What things need doing?  What message backed by data needs more advertising?

In the UK at least I don’t think silence is the issue any longer. I think many leaders appreciate the problems and are actively trying to overcome the under-representation and the lack of voice some women feel. Within UK universities we have a benchmarking scheme, the Athena Swan awards, for STEM departments which are very effective at making universities and individual departments look at both their statistics and practices, and come up with appropriate action plans. Indeed, some funders make such awards a condition. This has really changed the climate. However, there is no doubt there are still pockets of resistance, the unconsciously held views that all of us hold which stereotype people (and not just women in science) in all kinds of ways without stepping back and being objective.

We do need statistics, but we also need to recognize how much social conditioning affects every child from birth. I get fed up with being told that the statistics ‘prove’ girls don’t want to do physics, when we cannot tell much more than that boys and girls are encouraged to do different things as children, are treated differently and cultural messages are different.

10. In line with the previous question, what can people in society, without the influence of the Academy, do to help bring a new generation of women into science?

Avoid stereotyping any individual, boy or girl. Make sure that they appreciate any field is wide open to them. Encourage girls to explore their world – be it putting new washers into taps or climbing trees. Let them be brave and not be put off by being ‘nice’ or pretty. Give them solid aspirations and not just aiming at domestic virtues.

11. As an addendum to the previous two questions, can you describe the Matilda Effect to our readers?

The Matilda effect describes how women’s contributions to research are systematically undervalued and under-described. One specific example would correspond to the role Rosalind Franklin played in the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, with Jim Watson never giving her contributions the credit they deserved. More generally, women working as part of a team may find that their names aren’t mentioned and their deeds can be attributed to others. Even when women are quite senior and leading teams you find comments being made implying such collaboration is a weakness not a strength, as it would be for a man.

12. How would you describe your philosophical frameworks inside and outside of Experimental Physics?  How have your philosophical frameworks evolved?

I don’t think in these terms! What I do know is that I enjoy constantly exploring new areas, evolving from one area of research to another. A lot of the work I do is interdisciplinary. To succeed at such work one needs to be prepared to put the time into learning the language of someone else’s discipline, at least sufficiently far that you can explore the shared problem together. This can be challenging, but ultimately it is very rewarding. I am not the kind or person who likes to know everything about a small area, I prefer to take a more broad brush approach, look for connections between different areas and forge new connections. This means all the work I’ve done forms a sort of connected web, even though there may appear to be many different threads.

13. For students looking for fame, fortune, and/or utility (personal and/or social), what advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students in Experimental Physics?

Work out what it is that you enjoy about physics. Is it simply the ability to problem solve, or getting stuck into some experimental technique or another? What motivates you – curiosity, solving some specific problem or contributing to a team effort? There can be so many reasons for pursuing physics and you have to work out what it is that you particularly enjoy. If you are seeking a fortune, then you will probably either want to do something more entrepreneurial or quantitative (eg in the financial sector), but if it is simply that you are curiosity-driven, there are many directions to head in. Physics is often described as a ‘difficult’ subject. If you are struggling it may simply be that your motivation isn’t high enough and you should choose some other path that excites you more.

14. Many assume a need for a genius level-intellect or above-average levels of mathematical facility (even in childhood) to think of a career in science.  How much of this seems true?  How much of this assumption seems like a myth?

You undoubtedly need to be competent at maths, but genius level is an overstatement for many parts of the field. I think it is probably more the case you need to be very logical in how you approach problems, able to think things through by breaking down a tough challenge into its component parts. You also need to be able to think in abstract terms. Physics isn’t just a case of memory work; you need to be able to understand underlying mechanisms and be able to see how to apply the mathematics and models you have learned in one situation to another, perhaps less familiar one.

15. Whom do you consider your biggest influences?  Could you recommend any seminal or important books/articles by them?

Having a teacher at my school who was on top of the subject and able to answer my questions without anxiety was a great start. At university, having a ‘director of studies’ who was very supportive when I was struggling and encouraged me not to give up was also crucial. After I’d moved into research my supervisor at Cornell (Professor Ed Kramer, now of UCSB) and my head of department after I’d returned to Cambridge (Sir Sam Edwards) were also great influences on me, inspirational in the way they tackled their own research. They believed in me, believed I could follow a research career and gave me many opportunities early on that enabled me to lay down a firm foundation for my subsequent research. Finally the Nobel Prize winner Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who was a friend of Sir Sam’s and whom I met fairly often in Cambridge, also was immensely supportive and inspirational. De Gennes wrote a number of books, of which ‘Scaling Concepts in Polymer Physics’ was probably the most important for me, even though at the time I found it very hard to understand!

16. What do you consider the most important point(s) about your line of research and work?

My research has moved from being fairly traditional for a physicist, working on  conventional synthetic polymers, to working on natural materials such as starch and proteins. Initially some of my colleagues were very critical of me working on such materials, thinking they were far too messily complex to be able to do physics on them. But I persisted, applying standard physical tools and approaches to them. Ultimately I think others understood better that this was perfectly good physics. However, now much of my time is focused on issues around gender and I read a lot of sociology papers. This work is obviously not research-based. Some of it is experiential and it seems that, because I have a successful academic pedigree, people are more willing to listen to what I have to say. There are still many issues for women in science, so I am keen to use my voice to encourage others to think about their local practices and possibly prejudices.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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