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Dame Professor Athene Donald

Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge.  Her research focuses primarily on soft matter physics and its structures and relationships with living organisms.  Her list of awards and honours is extensive, including being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, numerous honorary doctorates and Women in Science awards.  In 2010, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 2015 was announced as the next president of the British Science Association.

If you work at the boundary between two disciplines there are a variety of challenges

On becoming interested in science

I realised as soon as I started doing physics at about the age of 13 that it just made a lot of sense to me.  Looking back, it’s really hard to know why because the kind of physics one does at school isn’t terribly exciting, but I was convinced that was what I wanted to do and stuck with that.  I went to Cambridge, where I read Natural Sciences, which meant that I was exposed to other subjects like…I did chemistry and physics, what would now be called material science, in my first year.  And I nearly went into material science but I stuck with physics because I thought it was more precise and then I did a PhD and then I just went on doing it because I was always curious, I always wanted to know something else, find out something more.  I wish I could tell you what it was that excited me at 13!  As I say, when I look back at it, it doesn’t make a lot of obvious sense to me.  I did have a very good physics teacher.  She was a woman who was a graduate of Oxford in physics and I think so many schools don’t have good physics teachers and that’s a real put off, but I was lucky, I had a good teacher, and I guess she just encouraged me to keep going.  And when I asked a question she could answer them!

On experimental physics as a field

So experimental physics is doing physics, really!  As opposed to either theoretical, or computational these days.  And I chose the title of Professor of Experimental Physics partly as a bit of self-mockery because I was a terrible experimentalist when I started!  I used to break things all the time.  I actually did the final year option in theoretical physics as an undergraduate, so calling myself Professor of Experimental Physics was sort of to say, well, look, I could do it after all!  And the experimental work that I’ve done, it started off as…I was doing electron microscopy and that broadened into other kinds of microscopy, and basically the relationship between the internal packing or structure of different kinds of materials and their properties.

On soft matter physics

Soft matter physics is the physics of the soft squidgy stuff that’s very familiar to people.  So, originally when people talked about condensed matter they meant metals and hard things, and so the field of soft condensed matter was meant to be the opposite of that, if you like, and it’s now got shortened to just being soft matter.  So it’s things like food, I’ve done quite a lot of work on food, on plastics, on wet things too.  So things like paint, an example of a colloid, complex fluids.  And if you look around you, an awful lot of the things we use everyday are in fact soft matter.

On the boundary of scientific disciplines

If you work at the boundary between two disciplines there are a variety of challenges.  The first one is a very obvious one.  You don’t know their language and they don’t know yours.  So if you're going to have a successful collaboration it takes a long time, because you’ve got to understand enough of what the other person is saying in order to be able to make progress.  So it’s quite an investment.  And I think something that’s often forgotten is that it really matters that you get on with that other person!  if you’re constanly thinking, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to work with this person but I need them’, then that’s not a very healthy relationship.  So, language is the first thing.

I think you’ve got to have quite a lot of determination.  Certainly this area of what would now be called biological physics wasn’t really recognised when I started off.  I’m talking about the 80s, 90s, and some of my physics colleagues were, ‘Huh? Working on starch?’, you know, ‘That’s not a suitable material.  We work on nice single crystals of copper’, or something.  And so that was quite a challenge.  And I think that one is much less prevalent now.  I think people have realised that complexity in many ways is an interesting topic in physics and therefore looking at complex biological materials is fine.

But the third issue I think is obtaining funding.  Because it’s very difficult for the research council structure, I think, to accommodate people who are neither falling fully into one area or another.  And likewise for committees, there’s the problem that if most people are what you might call mainstream physics, and you’ve got this thing coming in from left field, it’s hard for them to feel comfortable funding it.  And I think of it as regression towards the mean.  People choose the things they are most comfortable with when they don’t fully understand.  It’s harder for them to make sense of subtle referees comments and such things.  So funding is a perennial problem, I think, in any kind of interdisciplinary.

I think the way that the physics-biology interface has really flourished is amazing. It started off, initially I think biologists saw physicists as being able to provide the tools, so fancy optical microscopes and things like that, and I think biologists tended to think physicists were just a service, but I think there’s a much better dialogue, and all kinds of new ideas are coming out of that dialogue that I think will really help us understand how we function, how we as people function.

On interdisciplinary science education

I think at school, it’s a challenge, because you need to instil the basics.  Some people would say you have to specialise to start with in order to become interdisciplinary later.  But I think you can still do that, still concentrate on the fundamentals in each of the sciences, and yet point out that they are interconnected.  And I think that probably is an important thing to do.  And I think we, you know, in terms of making sense of the world which, as I say, is what drove me, I think our kids need to know how things fit together and not just think, ‘This is something I’ve got to memorise for a physics exam’.

On work with protein aggregation

Protein aggregation is something that turns up in food, again, that’s how I got into protein aggregation, so things like the texture of yoghurt or cheese is all down to the way the milk proteins come together.  And it originally started off for me as a purely electron microscopy project.  We were interested in how agriculture could be imaged without artifice because of having to dry the sample.  Normally in an electron microscope you have to dehydrate the sample.  So if you’ve got something like cheese, which has still got a lot of water bound in there, you would be changing the structure and yet people were trying to infer things about the structure.  And we were working with a new kind of electron microscope called an environmental scanning electron microscope which allowed you to keep saturated vapour pressure around the sample, and so you didn’t have to dehydrate the sample.  You essentially had to do no sample preparation at all. 

And so that’s…the original project was to try and look, again, how different processing conditions effected the size of the aggregates that are formed.  And as we worked, we realised that, well, first of all, that although we were looking at a particular protein, Beta-lactoglobulin, the mechanisms that we were suggesting permitted the formation of these aggregates had nothing to do with the specificity of the protein.  So we looked at other proteins, and every protein we looked at we could find the same conditions where exactly the same kind of aggregates form.  But we also found…so the initial work was around what’s called the isoelectric point, where there’s no net charge in the protein, but we also found that away from that there were very large aggregates that formed that were tens of microns in size, and we were quite puzzled by these.  And again, we realised that actually these turned up in all kinds of situations and had been seen for instance in the brains - the post mortem studies of brains - of people who’d died of Alzheimers.  So you realise that, again, there is universality, and as a physicist I find that very satisfying.  You know, the biochemist probably wants to look at each protein in a specific way but for me there are generalities about how this kind of aggregation occurs, and the specifics will affect things, of course they will, but at, if you like, a second order or a third order range.

On blogging about science

My blog covers a wide range of things, and this idea that a blog could be online mentoring I find very attractive because it’s a way of reaching out to people who you would never meet, or not necessarily.  And I suppose what I mean by that is if you’re trying to encourage people, if you’re trying to say to people who may be going for an interview or thinking of applying to a job or even to college, what skills do you need, what are people looking for, and to try and give them confidence.  And also the other thing that I think is fundamentally important is that when you re setting out on your career you think, you look at people ahead of you in the game and think, ‘Ah, they must’ve always known what they want to do.  They’ve never had any problems or nobody’s ever kicked them or they’ve never failed’ and, you know , this is just such rubbish, and I think it’s really important to say to people, ‘OK, everyone has bad periods in their life, many people will have failed at this first thing they set themselves to do, they will not have achieved what they thought was their goal but maybe they find something else which really, really satisfies them and you’re seeing them succeed at something that at 18 wasn’t what they thought they were going to do’.  So, saying all those things, kind of humanising the people ahead of you on the ladder, I think is really important.

On gender inequality in science

I was for awhile the university’s gender equality champion and one of the projects I sort of led on, I suppose, was to create a book which ultimately turned into something called The Meaning of Success and it was a range of interviews with women around the university, not just academics, not just senior academics, but lots of different people, trying to find out what it was that they valued in their life.  And I think it was very clear that for many of them it wasn’t the size of their grants, the size of their salary, it was much more ‘I help students to succeed.  I look at the people I’ve supported and it gives me such pleasure to see how well they’ve done’.  Clearly, work-life balance was very important too but just within the confines of the university you could see that for many women there were many things that aren’t really valued in our current career progression.  So the university is trying to work out how some of these other things should be factored in.  One specific thing is outreach, actually, which many people, men and women, enjoy doing, but how much kudos do you get for doing it?  And yet we all say, ‘Ah!  It’s so important!’  And yet, if at the end of the day it doesn’t count for very much, that’s not very helpful.  So I think universities collectively have to think a bit harder about the things they place value on because they aren’t necessarily the things that are good either for the university collectively or the community more widely, and we have very much had a system of ‘mine’s bigger’ winning, and I think that’s not necessarily very healthy and it leads to all kinds of unhealthy competition.  People cutting corners when they’re writing papers because they’re desperate to be the first one to get it into one of the glamour journals and things like that.  It’s not healthy.

On doing scientific outreach

Obviously not everyone’s going to be good at outreach, not everyone can be a skilled communicator, but we need people who do do that, who go out and talk at festivals, schools, whatever, to enthuse the next generation.  And I don’t think it has to be about cutting-edge science, but obviously that is also what people want to hear about and if you take something like the LHC experiments, not my kind of physics at all, but clearly people are deeply, deeply fascinated by it so having people that can go and explain what the Higgs Boson is in simple words is really important. 

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