Cambridge & diversity

Athene Donald: because she's worth it

Athene DonaldAthene Donald FRS is a renowned scientist and mother of two. She came up to read physics (as part of the Natural Sciences tripos) at Cambridge in 1971 (Girton College) and has worked at the Cavendish Laboratory since 1983, becoming a professor in experimental physics in 1998. Athene was one of the 2009 recipients of the L'Oreal UNESCO Women in Science Award—only the second British scientist to receive the prize—and has been described by New Statesman (January 2009) as one of ten people who will change the world. She has recently been elected to the University Council.

What initially inspired you to come to Cambridge?

I always knew I wanted to come to Cambridge, but I have no idea where that came from. My grandfather was an undergraduate here before the First World War, so possibly that fed into it, but I don't know. My mother said that at the age of 7 I declared that I wanted to come to Cambridge to read maths. When I discovered physics I knew that it was physics that I wanted to do rather than maths but I just always knew this was what I wanted.

I didn't know it was an odd thing to want to do or that very few girls came. But it was Cambridge I wanted to come to, Girton specifically, but don't ask me why!

Was your school supportive of your decision?

I was at Camden School for Girls, which was a girl's grammar, and they had always had a sprinkling of girls going to Oxford and Cambridge so it wasn't that unusual. Two or three years before me there had been another girl who had gone to Girton to read physics so even that wasn't completely unheard of, although I was the only girl in my sixth form who wanted to study physics at university. I had a very good physics teacher who herself was a physics graduate from Oxford so I believed it was perfectly possible.

Was it challenging being the only girl in the lecture theatre or the laboratory?

I wasn't the only girl in the lecture theatre, but I was sometimes in the lab. It took me aback. I just thought I have no choice; I have to get on with this. Being surrounded by girls back at Girton was very supportive. My director of studies, Christine McKie, was brilliant. She certainly didn't mother us, but she supported us. She knew us all individually and, in fact, when I won a prize and gave a lecture at the Royal Society two or three years ago she came to it, which was really nice as she had long since retired.

What's your favourite memory of being an undergraduate?

I found my first year hard and part of that was because I had done a very unusual pilot A-Level in physics so came to Cambridge with an entirely different kind of physics from your average student. By the last year everything felt straightforward by comparison and I just sort of swum through it because by that point everything was making sense. That feeling that I understood the physics; that life was ok … after really struggling at the beginning that was very satisfying.

Did you ever get the feeling that physics wasn't a subject for women?

I don't think I was conscious of that at all, I don't remember feeling any kind of ‘what are you doing here?’ I couldn't help but notice I was in a minority but it wasn't as if anyone was doing anything actively to say you don't belong here.

After completing my undergraduate degree I did my PhD here too, I didn't leave until I became a post doc and then I went to the States. Cambridge is very intense and pressured as the terms are short and a lot is expected of you—but if science is your passion, then Cambridge is brilliant.

In terms of my career it has been great at Cambridge because there is so much going on and we have wonderful students. There have been times when I have found it quite challenging though, and not necessarily because I am a woman. I do physics that was initially not regarded as mainstream and there were times when this felt very uncomfortable—but it has now become a very acceptable kind of physics.

Did you find it challenging to have a family alongside your academic career at Cambridge?

Colleagues were immensely supportive and rather pleased I think that I was having a family. But it is very hard work, when you have had no sleep and you are expected to give a 9am lecture, that's a challenge and there is no way around that.

On the other hand, academic life actually allows you to be quite flexible in the way you work. When I had my children there were no policies about part-time working but I could choose what hours I worked and no one really knew where I was! I think that lots of academics have found that you can work in the evening so you can be there at the end of the day to meet the children from school. You have that flexibility. I also had a husband who was immensely supportive, and that makes all the difference.

I think it is important to say that there is no single right way of doing it. You have to work out what works for you and your partner. My husband gave up seeking further funding for research when our younger child was three or four. It was a high price for him to pay, but it meant that when I had to be somewhere he was there for the children so we had that security.

I gave up travel almost entirely for a few years which may have impacted on my research or my international profile, but then again it made me more accessible to my students so it is swings and roundabouts really.

I think the media tends to pick up on the people who say you can't have a family and be a successful scientist instead of trumpeting those who have succeeded; that's why I want to stand up and say think about it, maybe you can do it. It's not easy, but it can be done if you are prepared to work at it and you really want to do it.

Why did you become involved in WiSETI, the University's Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative?

I think there is a need to keep pushing, and to say, it's ok for women to do science, don't give up and don't listen to those who say you can't do it and have a family. The 2009 L'Oreal UNESCO Women in Science Award has given me another platform. I can stand up and say, girls can do science and you can have a family; it's a wonderful opportunity just to give those basic messages: it is difficult but if you want to do it you can. I think that is really positive. It's a very valuable platform to push the WiSETI message.

WiSETI provides a valuable opportunity for networking and passing on tips. When I talk to other women and say it wasn't all easy and admit that it's been challenging, they say what—even for you! There were times when I found, particularly serving on committees, that my voice wasn't really heard. I felt I was being put on committees because they wanted to have a woman but I wasn't being effective. In a subject like mine you may be the only female PhD student in your research area and that can be quite lonely. If something goes wrong, your experiments don't work, who do you turn to? How do you get confidence if you are feeling insecure?

I think it is important that you say it isn't all hunky dory and there are challenges; I'm sure many men would say the same thing. It's not necessarily because I'm a woman, but life is not easy; it is a competitive atmosphere and you have to find all the support you can.