Women of outstanding achievement

Having written about science and science careers recently I thought it was time to get back to some girl awesomeness!

I’m hoping that in just a few sentences you’re all going to say ‘oh I know all about that already’ I suspect, however, that at least a few of you don’t know about the UKRC’s women of outstanding achievement awards and don’t know about some of the amazing women who were honoured this year.

I think these awards are really great for a number of reasons. I love the fact that they are a bit creative: an exhibition of photographic portraits is made of the winners each year.  Portraits that can be hung in prominent places in academic institutions and learned societies where there are often few portraits of women. They also get lots of media coverage, which is why I’m hoping you’ve all heard of them already. The third thing I think is great, and I hope this won’t sound morbid, is that they are all living. There are many amazing and inspirational women in the history of science, but for me personally I find role models who are alive now, who live in the same world as us, more inspirational.

This year Athene Donald won the lifetime achievement award, I was really delighted by this, not only has she achieved many things and gone out of her way to open doors for others to succeed too, but she seems so down to earth and approachable.

Professor Dame Athene Donald became the first ever female professor of physics at Cambridge University in 1998, and I can’t help feeling that Cambridge took their time about that since it was quickly followed by her becoming a fellow of the Royal society in 1999. In 2010 she was awarded a DBE and became a Dame for her services to physics. She’s won so many prizes I won’t even try to list them here!

She is the University of Cambridge Gender Equality Champion but champions equality far and wide having been involved in many projects to promote women in science. She describes herself as a workaholic and a cursory glance at her CV illustrates just how true this is! She has also successfully juggled a home life with her illustrious career and has a son and a daughter. Many people believe you need to move around a lot and work in different places to successfully pursue a career in science, so if you take a look at Athene’s CV notice how much time she’s spent in Cambridge, a fact that has clearly not held her back or limited her research in any way.

Which brings me nicely to Athene’s research. It’s quite varied and quite complex so I’m just going to try and give you a taste of her work. All biological systems, as complex as they are, operate within the confines of the physical laws. This is where Athene’s work resides, in understanding the physics of biology and using physics to understand and examine biological systems.

Proteins can stick together to form aggregates, this is relevant to many things but is particularly important in Alzheimers disease. Athene is researching the factors that drive aggregation as well the effect of different forces on aggregates. She’s also interested in the forces involved when cells move and divide.

She’s interested in microrheology – substances that are soft allow particles to move within them and she has been looking at ways to track individual particles to understand their movement. This is important to biology because although we often think of the inside of a cell as being filled with fluid it’s actually jam packed full of molecules, especially proteins, which make the inside of a cell more like a gel than a liquid.

The final aspect of her work I want to talk about is Environmental scanning electron microscopy. Scanning electron microscopy allows scientists to see an amazing level of detail, however, samples usually have to be fixed, dried and coated for the technique to work.

This scanning EM picture of a starch grain was taken from Iowa State University website.

Environmental scanning electron microscopy allows samples in their normal state to be examined so we can see how they really look without all the artefacts caused by processing them. This will be really useful for lots of different branches of science.

Athene blogs at Occam’s Typewriter and can be found on twitter here!

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