The physicist at the head of Cambridge University’s Churchill College has concerns about Brexit.

Professor Dame Athene Donald, DBE, FRS is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, where she is Master of Churchill College. She served as the University Gender Equality Champion 2010-14 and is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. She took up the role of Master of Churchill College in October 2014, the year in which Churchill College celebrated the 50th anniversary of its official opening.

Why physics?

To me physics is about understanding how the world around us works. My research has been about familiar objects, food for instance. How do the molecules interact? Protein aggregation, for example when milk is heated up, why does it become less runny? What happens is proteins go from globular structures to unwinding to yield long chains which get entangled so that solutions are less runny.

How does this relate to the research on Alzheimer’s disease that you have also done?

My major concern is studying food, and I did not know where it would take me. This unwinding of proteins can also happen when we age, and the proteins in our brains can also stick together. The same kinds of things are seen in both cases. I work indirectly with neuro scientists and am a physicist, but you do see exactly the same structures in the brains of patients who have died from Alzheimer’s.

Is scientific research very creative?

As a scientist you are very creative. You take an idea in one place and explore the unknown. It is not like doing an experiment at school!

Whereabouts on the spectrum of size do you work?

I don’t work on the very small or the very big, but at the intermediate length scale of things that affect our everyday life. When I was growing up I wanted to understand what happens in the world close to home. What we discovered is that there is nothing unique about the way proteins behave in the brain. You see this same type of structure elsewhere.

Will this lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s?

They still don’t know the fundamental causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Is Cambridge University very advanced in this area?

What I have described is one part of my Physics Department’s work, where physics meets biology and medicine. I am one of the senior Professors. My children always ask me why I have not won a Nobel Prize!

Is the study of physics in constant development?

Yes, as are the techniques we can use. Here at the Royal Society, where we are today, Robert Hooke used to have to draw what he could see under the microscope. Now we have fully automated microscopes so you can ask much more sophisticated questions. The development of technique drives the questions we can answer.

And you have been a pioneer in the field of biological physics?

For instance in the study of starch, which is very familiar to people, plant scientists are trying to understand the biochemistry of plants. We study the structures in the starch granule and I started working with plant scientists, albeit we had with rather different vocabularies and over time forged a good relationship that enabled us to make substantial progress. In collaborative science you have to learn each other’s language. Over the years this area has become more exciting, with genetic sequencing and all the advances in techniques giving us new tools to solve these important questions.

How did you become the Master of Churchill College, Cambridge?

I applied. To be head you need wide experience in different spheres and to be seen as a leader. Churchill is unique among Oxbridge Colleges, by statute 70% of our students study science. So it is natural for a scientist to lead Churchill College, and of the 7 people who have done so only one has not been a scientist.

The College also looks after the archives of Sir Winston Churchill?

The College was founded as the national and commonwealth memorial to Churchill, before he died. After his death people wanted to put his papers somewhere safe, so we have the national archive of his papers, and also those of Margaret Thatcher as well as other politicians, scientists and diplomats. We have this incredible archive of original papers for historians to study to complement the science focus.

How does Churchill College function as a college of Cambridge University?

Cambridge University has 31 colleges and each undergraduate attends one. Students from all colleges go to lectures together in the University, but additionally in the colleges we have small group teaching, called ‘supervisions’, where there is a very personal interaction. Fellows of the College work with 1 to 3 people in small groups and also help them with pastoral care. This means there is a huge support system. At Churchill College we have 450 undergraduates and about 300 postgraduate students and each one is well known. It is unlikely that things will go wrong without someone noticing.

How does the college system work within the University?

You apply to a college and are accepted by a college, like Churchill, that provides undergraduate student accommodation, meals and friendship groups on its main site. The lectures students attend are in the University Departments, outside of the college, and degrees are awarded by the University and exams marked in the Departments. The colleges have different atmospheres and facilities. In sport the colleges compete against each other and the university as a whole also competes against other universities.

Is Cambridge a world leading university?

Cambridge is among the most important universities and consistently ranks in the top 5 in the world. We have fantastic resources and the small group teaching enables our students to flourish.

Do they come to you from all over the world?

At undergraduate level they are mainly from the UK, approximately 10% are from Europe. At graduate level this percentage is higher, and at postgraduate level only one third are from the UK in my college, the others are from the US, China, Europe etc. In other countries students don’t specialise as fast as they do in the UK, and the UK is second only to the States in Nobel Prize winners.

When you compare Oxford and Cambridge, what is the biggest difference?

Cambridge is more science and Oxford is more arts and philosophy, politics and economics.

Nowadays all over the world science is more privileged than the humanities?

It is more expensive to do science, so you need more money. Cambridge values the arts and humanities, and they are fundamental to a real university. We can all learn from conversations with our humanities colleagues. How people relate to science is very important. Scientists have to be conscious that facts alone are not enough to drive policy. Nevertheless what we do will relate to the man in the street.

Sometimes there is a large mystery put up around science?

Unfortunately! One of the problems we have is that people think science is difficult, but it is part of our heritage. It’s part of who we are. Facebook and Google think about this, about how people interact with the technology. My Vice-Chancellor recently talked about how the scientists (including him) who created the cervical cancer vaccine must explain it to people and how people need to be reassured about its safety. This needs more than just the science itself. We should all know enough to know when we can trust what is said about science.

How do we do this?

People are too prone to think of the world as divided between science and humanities; in the UK we would benefit from a baccalaureate educational system so people are more rounded. Then there is the gender angle. From an early age boys and girls are sent in different directions and there is a mental hierarchy of easy and difficult subjects. Even the kinds of toys children are given pass these messages on – stereotypically boys are given construction toys and girls dolls. And if as a girl you take something apart and that is met with disapproval then you will be less likely to think about engineering as a career.

Is society very divided between arts and science?

Our society affects the choices people make at a very early age; when they are 5 or 6 differences in aspirations start to occur. In the UK it’s 80% boys who are doing A-Level physics. You need A-Level physics to be an engineer, so there are few female engineers. In veterinary science it’s the other way round – it would seem vets are seen as caring and so it’s a ‘suitable’ career for a girl. In the UK these gender differences are reinforced by the choices people make at school. Of the 130 students who come to study as undergraduates at Churchill College Cambridge each year only one third are girls – I’d like it to be 50/50.

What does it mean that you are the Master of Churchill College?

I have been the head of the college for 2.5 years and can be for up to 10 years. I chair committees, I am a trustee, I approve budgets. The college is a charitable foundation, so I lead the charity and part of my role is to help to raise funds, mainly from alumni and philanthropic organisations. I am 100% employed by the University, 40% by Churchill College, and also spend a lot of time working with the Royal Society where I am a Fellow!

Do you enjoy it?

Yes, because I believe in the system of small group teaching. Churchill is a delightful modern college and my portfolio is very interesting and diverse. For example we just held a symposium at Churchill called “What is War?”

What about Brexit?

Most academics are very concerned about Brexit, and for science limiting the ability for people to move freely is a disaster. Will students from Europe need visas to come and study at Cambridge? Recently Indians have gone to the States instead because they don’t feel welcome in the UK any more. There is a danger Europeans might take the same view. And we rely on travel to facilitate collaborations and research.

The Cambridge City area voted overwhelmingly to ‘Remain’ in the EU but that was not true even just beyond the city limits. As academics we have to recognize this and work to understand why and how what we stand for does not seem relevant to some of these communities. The university was very disappointed by the result of the referendum, but as a global university we have to endeavour to make the most of the undoubtedly significant changes that will occur over the next few years. There will be new opportunities, as well as new threats. Adopting this position, however, will most certainly not stop the University and its members continuing to put strong pressure on the government to minimise the risks to the whole of the Higher Education sector directly caused by Brexit. The entire sector has historically been a very strong contributor to the economy as well as possessing a significant number of world-class universities whose strengths we must fight to see are not jeopardised.

Will Cambridge open overseas or develop online teaching?

There is no suggestion I know of that we should open an establishment in Europe. We don’t have online courses; we think it would dilute what we do. It doesn’t give you the same education. It was a conscious decision not to go in that direction. It’s a different model.

Will Cambridge become isolated?

We will find solutions to realign what we do and who we do it with. Brexit will open up the rest of the world. We are a global university, so the emphasis will shift, but we will not allow ourselves to become isolated.

Is it difficult to come to study at Cambridge?

There are approximately 3.5 applications made for each one that is accepted. Within the UK there are many students who are not encouraged to aspire to come, so many people do not apply. There is no buying your way in. Meritocracy is the principle.

Is there a class system?

Almost the opposite. If two applicants are equal we take the one from the less good school! At Churchill snobbery is a myth, and science as a discipline is less like that. Science has been meritocratic for a long time.

Do you support your students financially?

Many are supported by different methods, some through the central university, some through the college who give additional funds to cover living expenses.

Are you happy with the education system in the UK?

I am not happy. We should have a broader education. People seeing science as hard is part of this narrowness. But one of the strengths of the British system is critical thinking and that covers many fields. As the motto of the Royal Society says: “Nullius in verba” – “Take nobody’s word for it.”


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April 2017

University of Cambridge

Churchill College, Cambridge

Images courtesy of University of Cambridge and Churchill College.