Women at the top: Professor Athene Donald

Women at the top: Professor Athene Donald

Why should we take more risks?

Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and recently received a lifetime achievement award in the UKRC's 2011 women of outstanding achievement awards.

Tracey Duncombe from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC) asked her about her achievements. Find out what Athene's advice is for aspiring scientists.

Congratulations, you must be very proud?

Yes, it's quite an achievement. Although it feels a bit funny to receive a lifetime achievement award whilst I'm still working, I'm not dead yet!

Did you receive a copy of the photo? Where did you put it?

I have a small copy which is sitting on my desk at home. I might bring it into the office, I haven't decided.

So it goes without saying that you've had a successful career, how did you get to where you are today?

I was a physics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge at a time when there were very few women studying physics. At the time I had no intentions to follow a career in physics; I just found it really interesting.

I stayed in Cambridge to complete a PhD and then moved to the USA as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University where, for my second postdoc, I moved into the polymer research field. At that point I met and worked with Professor Ed Kramer, who was a really inspirational person. He persuaded me that I should think about an academic career; that's when my career really started to take off.

After that I came back to Cambridge with my husband as he had secured a College Fellowship. I was lucky enough to be awarded a SERC Fellowship in the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science. Two years later I was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory and then, at the age of 33, I was offered a lectureship, the first female lecturer in the Department of Physics. Coincidently it was around this time when I found out that I was pregnant.

Protein polymer_95378958

Professor Donald now researches protein polymers

How did starting a family affect your career decisions?

I remember Sam Edwards, a former Council member of the AFRC (BBSRC's predecessor) who was Cavendish Professor of Physics at the time, and another hugely inspirational character, telling me that 'intelligent women should have babies'. That really stuck with me and encouraged me.

I was also fortunate that my husband was prepared to give up his career to be the primary carer of our children and so I steadily progressed, moving into food physics as part of a large AFRC-funded project with the Institute of Food Research. My work became increasingly focussed at the biology interface and now has included studying proteins, polysaccharides and cellular biophysics - areas that, at the time, were considered odd for a physicist but are now more mainstream.

In making these decisions I was able to carve out a distinctive position, both as a female scientist and in my chosen field.

So what's next?

I want to seize opportunities to get across the message that science is creative and is a key part of life. Some people have preconceived notions that science is sterile, I find this idea quite dangerous. I also feel passionate about getting across the notion that scientists are not a peculiar breed of people.

Excited scientist_92209007

Science is creative!

What's the biggest piece of advice you could give to a woman at the start of her science career?

Have courage; don't allow fears to undermine you. The indicators are that women are more often risk-averse, less adventurous than men, more fearful that if they attempt something new they may fall on their faces and make a fool of themselves.

Too often individuals, not only women but perhaps more of them than men, don't feel able to jump off the edge off the cliff believing that their parachute really will open and let them take flight serenely. My advice would be that constantly shivering at the edge will itself be at least as likely, if not more so, to lead to bad outcomes - be it disappointment, resentment or stagnation - than taking the risk that seems so terrifying.

If we analyse each opportunity to death, do the sums (consciously or otherwise) so that the 'play safe' option always wins, then we are defeating ourselves.

To read the full interview, visit the BBRSC website.

Main image (c) Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.