Pioneering physicist says an unusual career can bring rewards

25 July 2014

It can be uncomfortable to be a pioneer or in a minority in any field, but “being different can be good”, Prof. Dame Athene Donald told an IOP lecture audience on 24 July.

Dame Athene Donald

As a woman in science who has done pioneering work on the interface between physics and the life sciences, she had had “too many firsts” in her career, she joked. She had been one of only eight women in an undergraduate physics class of 100, one of seven females among 80 PhD students and the first female lecturer at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. She had also been the first female academic in the university to take two weeks’ unpaid maternity leave, she said.

During a period in the US, she was a researcher at Cornell University. “I was the first female postdoc in the department and I don’t think they knew what to do with me,” she said. Her second postdoc there, working on microscopy with polymers, was better, and she clicked with the person managing her, who became her mentor.

She then took over a project on food physics, but found that some of her colleagues mocked her for working in a field that did not count as physics in their eyes. “It would have been nice as a young academic to have had some support,” she said. Later she was offered a faculty position at Cornell as part of an affirmative action initiative, but turned it down, though not because of the affirmative action aspect of the offer. In hindsight she was glad about her decision, as she felt there was the potential for a huge backlash.

While the representation of women in physics has improved, she feels that the system can actually become worse for women as they progress through their career. She is also concerned about issues such as toys for boys and girls. “Toy segregation has got much, much worse than when I was young and even than when my children were young,” she said. Different language is still being used to describe the professional qualities of men and women and unconscious bias is still a problem, she said.

Prof. Donald described some of her work on the structure of starches, including the use of small-angle X-ray scattering, and her involvement in public engagement, including most recently with her Occam’s Razor blog for the Guardian. “It is part of the role we should have as academic scientists: to make sure that our work gets out there into the public domain,” she said.

In a question and answer session she was joined by the IOP’s president, Frances Saunders, who chaired the event. Prof. Donald stressed the importance of enthusing school students with science long before they reached the stage of making subject choices, and of countering gender stereotypes at an early age. Saunders spoke about the work the IOP was doing through its Opening Doors programme to tackle gender stereotyping as a whole-school issue for both boys and girls.

Several audience members discussed the need to make A-level programmes more stimulating and wanted to see some of the interesting topics that students encounter at university brought into the A-level syllabus. Prof. Donald said that doing so would depend on students studying maths A-level along with physics, and that could not always be assumed. She showed a photo of a teenager wearing a T-shirt that said “I am too pretty to do maths”; such attitudes fostered “maths anxiety” she said.

Looking back on her career, “being different” had had its advantages, as people noticed her and asked her to be involved in things such as serving on committees, she said. Mentoring had also been vital. “Ed Kramer took me on as a failed postdoc and very quickly saw my potential. He introduced me to key people at conferences, he made sure that I travelled and gave talks, he gave me the confidence to believe that I could have a career in physics,” she said. Academics that had groups of postdocs under them had to try to see them as individuals, she argued. “I think we should see everyone who works with us as a prime responsibility.”