On your wavelength

Interactions: Athene Donald

Athene Donald is a professor of soft matter and biological physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

I was educated in Cambridge in the so-called Natural Sciences Tripos, ultimately specialising in Theoretical Physics. That meant a broad course in the first year – physics, chemistry, materials science and maths – that narrowed down by the third year. I could easily have studied some biology in the first year, but as I had been so put off it at school by the fact it seemed to consist simply of memorising facts, it never crossed my mind to do so. So my formal biology education simply consists of two years at school, not even an O Level.

Although I specialised in Theoretical Physics I soon realised I did not want to spend my life only doing theory and went on to do an experimental PhD (‘Electron Microscopy of Grain Boundary Embrittled Systems’). Although electron microscopy – as well as other microscopies – has formed the core of my research, I have switched the kinds of materials I look at considerably during my career. After a first post-doc continuing on metals I switched to polymers and, over time, moved to biopolymers (first polysaccharides and much later proteins) and ultimately cellular biophysics.

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ?

A physicist working at the interface with biology. For my postdoctoral years, however, I was working, not in a physics department but in materials science and, in the USA for four years, that was within the Engineering Faculty.

What motivated you to move away from active research?

It was not a conscious decision! Back in the 1990s I was invited to serve on one of the very first government-organised so-called Foresight panels, looking at the future of the Food and Drink industry (at that time my biopolymer research largely related to food rather than biology per se). The broad range of people on that committee, and how they came together, fascinated me and I realised committee work was actually rather interesting. Over time I served on many different sorts of committees, internally within the university, with research councils and more and I found it taking up increasing amounts of time but also, on the whole, rewarding.

What really pushed my research over the edge was in 2010 when I took on two roles (neither to do with interdisciplinarity!): I became the University’s first Gender Equality Champion, which gave me the opportunity to work with the senior management to try to implement real policy changes and interventions to level the playing field for all across the university; and I became chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, dealing with 5-19 education at the time that Michael Gove as Secretary of State was introducing enormous changes to the curriculum. Neither role had any formal associated time commitment, but  they inevitably grew to fill (and more) the time available.  Both rewarding, both taught me a lot about different issues and ways of interacting with people from very different backgrounds. I continued in both those roles until 2014 when I became Master of Churchill College.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines?

As I indicated, I had essentially no formal biology training and the world of genetics – and the language – had anyhow changed radically since my education. So the initial problem I faced was in understanding the language. When I was first involved in a collaboration with a plant scientist in the area of starch I suspect we both spent about a year just understanding what the other was saying and what our disciplines could and could not offer each other. To my mind, what is absolutely crucial in this formative stage, is finding the other person congenial enough you want to spend the time working together through this potential barrier.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

Time! There is no short cut to getting to grips with a subject unfamiliar to you. I think it is also important to realise that working at the interface with another discipline does not mean you need to know everything about the other discipline. Recognizing what you absolutely do need to know but also there is plenty that, at least at that point, is not necessary so you can home in on the essentials, is crucial. Otherwise it can just seem an insurmountable problem. Of course over time what is vital to know may expand, but by that point it may seem less formidable a challenge. I think having someone you feel comfortable asking naïve questions of is also important; this comes back to having a good relationship with your collaborators. If you don’t feel relaxed about asking something basic the collaboration is probably not going to flourish. Of course sometimes collaborations will be with multiple individuals, possibly multiple disciplines, and then the tactics may need some modification.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

A general sense of confusion is what I remember most clearly. The diagrams – of protein structures – seemed mysterious as their presentation was so different from how a physicist would have approached the problem – and that left me with a profound sense of being out of my depth. If the basics seem incomprehensible it is hard to extract much useful information, however willing one may be. Coming into a new field also means that you probably don’t know anyone else in the room and that sense of isolation can be quite intimidating. Once you have some results (even if only a poster) it provides an entrée, so that other people will come up and introduce themselves. But that first step into the unknown can be daunting.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

Remember everyone comes with different experiences, skills and jargon. Somehow your job is to keep that constantly in mind like an orchestra conductor, to make sure people respect each other’s skills and make the best use of these they can. It is important not to let someone who is an expert in one area make another student whose skills sit elsewhere feel stupid or group dynamics can go sadly awry.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Moving away from the heart of a discipline can make colleagues very uncomfortable. Working with starch, not the typical sort of material a physicist in the 1990s would have thought ‘respectable’, meant I came in for a lot of flak from my seniors. Being told ‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch’ by one of these was depressing. Added to this is the fact that, as a woman, people’s biases probably gave them a lower opinion of me anyhow at the time. Hence I was accused at a conference of doing ‘just domestic science’ – and that after I’d given an invited paper. It was sometimes hard to feel positive in an atmosphere like that. Again, having people around you who you trust and can rely on is vital to provide the balance to any such hostile colleagues.

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