Athene Margaret Donald

Presentation address by Professor Helen Gleeson


As academics we hope to inspire. Dame Athene Donald has inspired scientists through her world-leading research; children, students and lay people through her remarkable commitment to science communication; and a generation of women scientists as a hugely motivational role model.

Athene Donald is a scientist of the highest academic standing. She took her degree and PhD in Cambridge in the 1970s, moving to Cornell University in the USA for four years before returning to Cambridge in 1981. She became a Professor of Experimental Physics there in 1998, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society a year later for her work relating the mechanical properties of polymers to their structure. 

Her research area is soft matter physics, which is an important and growing research topic here in Leeds.  Her innovative research has involved applying novel experimental techniques to allow a deep understanding of both synthetic and biological systems, notably protein aggregation. As well as using her expertise in environmental scanning electron microscopy, optical microscopy and infra-red spectroscopy as probes of soft matter systems, Athene developed novel X-ray methods to characterise starch, work that gave a new insight into structural changes in food during cooking. This led to work understanding other polymer systems, such as those implicated in ageing. Understanding food and ageing processes is close to many of our hearts!

Athene’s career has been studded with recognition and awards for both her science and her communication of science. She was elected as the president of the British Science Association this year and launched her presidency with stimulating discussions about the influences on young girls and how they are steered away from science and engineering from an early age through the choice of toys they are given and by the assumptions made in schools. She is a regular contributor to the broad national and international debates about science, writing in newspapers and in her own blog.  She has even been a guest on Desert Island Discs.

Athene is a true academic leader. She has been a deputy Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge and is the first woman Master of Churchill College, a college traditionally associated with science and engineering. Alongside her academic leadership, she has played an influential role in advancing the careers of women in Science, Engineering and Technology. Until 2013, she chaired the Athena Forum, a national body which oversees the progress of our universities in solving gender-related issues. This important work helps to remove barriers to excellence and I’m thrilled that in our own School, in a faculty with an Athena SWAN Silver award, four out of six new staff this September are women. 

Vice-Chancellor, today we are honouring an outstanding scientist and a truly inspirational woman.  I am delighted to present to you for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Athene Margaret Donald.