2010 Faraday medal

Professor Dame Athene Donald, FRS

University of Cambridge

For her many highly original studies of the structures and behaviour of polymers both
synthetic and natural.

Professor Donald's deeply innovative and productive research is in experimental soft condensed matter physics, incorporating polymer and colloidal physics, and more recently biological physics. Her early Cornell work on glassy polymer crazing remains very influential and was followed by insightful studies of shear deformation in liquid crystal polymers (LCP’s). Here she was able to demonstrate the ubiquity of the so-called banded texture after shear of LCP's and study the underlying packing of the molecules by electron microscopy showing how they followed a serpentine trajectory in several thermotropics. She also carried out important work on lyotropic systems, including a synthetic polypeptide, studying its gelation and phase diagram.

Donald’s mid-career launch into biological physics followed naturally from this polymer work leading to the physics of food and thence to starch. The starch granule structure and its changes during different processing histories were brilliantly analysed using a novel X-ray scattering technique. Structural changes during cooking, with the amylopectin molecule imaginatively treated as a side chain liquid crystalline polymer, brought understanding to different processing treatments. The misfolding of proteins forming amyloid fibrils is well recognized in the aetiology of many diseases, particularly those of old age. Donald’s recent work has demonstrated that this important and challenging problem can be powerfully addressed by the approaches of polymer science and furthermore suggests an intriguing connection between the structures observed in both fields.

Donald’s impressive achievements in biological physics are strongly based on the imaginative use environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM), neutron and X-ray scattering, optical microscopy and infrared spectroscopy. With ESEM in particular her success is supported by her many earlier pioneering investigations of its basic physics. To maintain this vital interchange between soft matter physics and biology, Donald has founded a well resourced Biology and Soft Systems (BSS) Group at the Cavendish.