Review: Medawar Lecture

Category: Speakers, General, Academic

On Tuesday 6th February we held the annual Medawar Lecture. The lecture, named after Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Peter Medawar (B2 1928-32), was given by Professor Dame Athene Donald, FRS, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, recipient of numerous world-renowned awards for her work on soft matter physics, and also her work in raising awareness of the difficulties women face in the work place, not least in Science.

The talk began with some common misconceptions about science, such as the frequently held idea that science cannot be creative, and counteracted with Medawar’s beliefs and speech; “All ideas of scientific understanding at every level, begin with a speculative adventure.” 

Moving on to some of her recent and most advanced research, she was able to speak to the audience on the subject of her more typically off-topic studies. Much of the work Donald does, revolves around the molecular properties of different substances, and the effect this has on processed final products. She gave the example of processed starch having the ability to disintegrate in our mouths, or breaking our teeth, clearly the first being the desired product in the food industry. She spoke about her work on proteins, and how her discoveries lead to advancements in understanding Alzheimer’s disease, as well as her work on the opening and closing of stomata being featured in a BBC television series on plants. 

So what makes Dame Athene’s approach to science so different? 

Firstly, she grasps the responsibilities that she feels science gives to her. She engages with the public and policy makers, and made it very clear that she does not assume public (‘tax-payers’) funding as a right. Although this in itself is impressive, it is perhaps her work on gender issues that is the most inspiring, particularly to a non-scientist.

Dame Athene spoke of the very small proportion of women in engineering and science – just 9% of the engineering workforce is female, a statistic she felt strongly about due to her view that engineering feeds progress. Rightly taking on the role of ‘Gender Equality Champion’ at Cambridge University from 2010 to 2014, she was able to highlight a few key delusions that lead to unconscious bias within the workspace; the idea that the reason for fewer women in science ultimately boils down to personal life interfering with professional life, for example, the desire of women to have children. She shut this notion down quickly, involving us in her own personal life, having two children at the same time as becoming a professor at Cambridge, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Instead she underlined the more likely reasons for such hardships she has encountered, looking more towards the idea that women are less likely to advance in their careers due to the minority status label they possess, not receiving the same mentoring and invitations to speak, and the general opinion that women are expected to shoulder the bulk of pastoral and public engagement activities instead of being offered the chance to engage with higher profile tasks.

Interestingly, she raised the point that bias can commonly be shown in the way we speak and describe colleagues and friends, simple adjectives may differ between genders for very similar attitudes. For example, a man may be labelled as assertive, but a woman with similar characteristics may be defined aggressive. A man may be outstanding, but a woman simply hard-working, and finally she raised the idea – women are more likely to be judged on their accomplishments whereas men are likely to be judged on potential. 

She ended her lecture by highlighting a few of the many ways she is promoting the  sciences – including trying to increase the proportion of women applicants into the STEM subjects at her college, where 70% of students study STEM subjects, and continuing to raise awareness about gender issues. She spoke about overt discrimination not being the problem, but rather unconscious bias affecting the education of so many people today. 

It was a privilege to be able to speak to, and listen to, Dame Athene, such an inspiring woman and a fantastic role model to scientific and non-scientific students alike.

Review by By Alicia Thomas (NC L6)

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