Professor Athene Donald

Speaking to… Professor Athene Donald

Professor Athene Donald

“As one of the relatively few senior women physicists I feel it is important for new generations growing up to realise that it is possible to be a physicist and a woman; a woman with children at that. And it’s fun!”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Professor Athene Donald


Athene Donald

Where are you based?

Cambridge (UK)

Who do you work for?

University of Cambridge, where I’m a Professor of Experimental Physics

What type of science communication do you do?

My most regular activity is blogging: I have my own blog at Occams Typewriter but I also blog approximately monthly through the Occam’s Corner Blog on the Guardian Science Blogs and most recently at the new Institute of Physics Blog PhysicsFocus (where we are meant to post every few weeks). Of these it is obviously the Guardian site which is most generally going to reach the general public. I’ve also written a few one-off articles for the broadsheets.

However in addition I talk to schools, science festival activities and the like from time to time, limited by the state of my diary. I’ve also done occasional mainstream radio programmes – by which I mean, not specifically science programmes like Material World, but programmes such as Desert Island Discs, Start the Week, A Good Read, Woman’s Hour, Essential Classics and In Our Time. I love these opportunities to sneak a little science into general programmes, and judging by the emails I get afterwards, these often strike a chord. I feel really fortunate to have been given all these golden opportunities.

I think it’s through my blogging I’ve recently become identified as a ‘science communicator’ – it’s not a label I’d apply to myself particularly. I’m a practicing academic scientist who likes talking about what I do, not a full time communicator.

Who is your main audience?

That depends, as indicated above. For many of these it is for the general public. I do think it is really important to convey to them that scientists aren’t all like they imagine Dr Frankenstein to have been. We are ‘normal’ people to whom they can relate and who do things that genuinely are interesting, creative and important.

How did you get into it?

I suppose the first major activity was when I headed up the team of 4 of us who gave the Institute of Physics 1995 series of lectures. This was about polymers and was called Building with Snakes. It taught me a lot about how to avoid jargon and put ideas across in a clear and lively manner. But shortly after that I had a bad experience with the media after a poorly worded press release discussing a major grant on colloids. That certainly put me off for at least a decade! Since then I’ve had media training and feel a lot more comfortable doing this sort of work.

Why do you do it?

Because it matters. As one of the relatively few senior women physicists I feel it is important for new generations growing up to realise that it is possible to be a physicist and a woman; a woman with children at that. And it’s fun!

Why do you think science communication is important?

Many people feel that science is too difficult for them, yet it matters to them at a fundamental level and they may have to make decisions relating to science, whether they understand it or not (for instance MMR vaccinations as a specific example which is back in the news again). Scientists need to share their love for the subject and convey its relevance to everyone. This is the only way we have to help citizens make informed judgements about everything from climate change to health risks they may be taking.

What do you love about science communication?

It’s an opportunity to share the excitement, not only of the science itself, but of the scientific process. It’s a way of engaging with young and old that can be very stimulating. I am often surprised by the sophistication of the questions that I get asked.

What has been your favourite project?

My blog gives me enormous satisfaction. It gives me an opportunity to write in a style far-removed from that of scientific papers or grant proposals, to have fun with the written word in ways I had forgotten for many years. But I also believe it’s important to get stuff out for people to read.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

More of the same with nothing significantly different in planning, but in my experience one should expect the unexpected. Recently I recorded a brief bit of film for Flog It about the Young’s slits experiment (not sure when it will be broadcast) – you never know what opportunities may come your way, but you have to be up for them.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

If you’re interested in writing – do some. Starting your own blog is a good way to find out if you enjoy it and feel able to commit to it regularly. Get some media training if you’re more interested in oral communication; it will help you find out how to express complicated ideas in a sufficiently simple way. There are lots of opportunities to get involved eg through local science festivals, becoming STEM Ambassadors etc. Don’t just think about it – get going!

You can follow Athene on Twitter at @AtheneDonald