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Professor Athene Donald DBE FRS: oration

Read Professor Carole Mundell's oration on Professor Athene Donald DBE FRS for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in May 2017.


Professor Dame Athene Donald is a world-leading physicist who works at the interface between physics and biology, applying the physics of soft matter systems and novel techniques to a wide range of synthetic and biological systems.

Born in London and educated at Camden School for Girls and Girton College, Cambridge, Athene graduated with a BA in Natural Science, followed by a PhD in 1977. After a postdoctoral research position at Cornell University, where her work on polymers began in earnest; she returned to Cambridge in 1981, to the Department of Materials Science and the Cavendish Laboratory.

Dame Athene was awarded the Institute of Physics Boys Prize for Experimental Physics in 1989, became Professor of Experimental Physics in 1998 and, in the following year, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2005, she received the Institute of Physics Mott Medal for theoretical physics and became the Royal Society Bakerian Lecturer for 2006. In 2009, she was elected as a member of the Academia Europaea – the same year in which she won the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. In 2010, Dame Athene received the Institute of Physics Faraday Medal and was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to Physics. In 2013, she was elected Fellow of the European Academy of Science. She has been Master of Churchill College, Cambridge since 2014.

In addition to her distinguished academic career and service on international research councils, Dame Athene is a passionate and clear-sighted advocate for the importance of addressing obstacles that face women in pursuing a scientific career. For example, in her British Science Association Presidential Address in 2015, entitled ‘Science and gender – obstacles and interventions’, she argued that today “The economic argument for keeping women who enter the science pipeline in the subject seems to have been won and it is clear that some relatively simple actions, with monitoring at their heart and necessarily with buy-in from the top of the organisation, can start to make a difference. It will not be a speedy transition, but we must hope that the inexorable rise in numbers will continue.”

Her commitment to promoting women in science takes very tangible forms. She has been the Director of Cambridge University’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative – WiSETI – since 2006 and was the University’s first Gender Equality Champion for four years from 2010. She also chaired the national Athena Forum from 2009 to 2013, providing strategic oversight of initiatives within UK Higher Education to advance the career progression and representation of women in STEM.

She has advised government on diversity in science, is a member of the European Research Council Gender Balance Working Group and is a patron of the Daphne Jackson Trust. She writes regularly on the topics affecting women in science for both the mainstream media and on her personal blog – Occum’s Typewriter - and, in 2011, received the UK Research Council’s Women of Outstanding Achievement Lifetime Award.

In this way, Dame Athene has made significant difference to the lives of many academic women and thus enabled them to make their contribution to science and knowledge.Her ambitions for diversity in science are well recognised at the University of Bath, where we continue to strive to advance the opportunities open to women and to embed equality, diversity and the principles of Athena Swan in all that we do.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Dame Athene Donald, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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