Athene Donald’s speech from the opening ceremony

This week saw the opening ceremony of the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology at Churchill. Our guest of honour was Professor Dame Athene Donald herself.

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The opening ceremony began with our Chamber Choir, who gave a fantastic rendition of Blue Skies, arranged by our very own Mr Spencer. Polly and Freya, the Year 8 students who suggested the building be named in her honour, then introduced Professor Donald, who gave an inspiring speech to the assembled guests. Outgoing President of the Sixth Form Council, Libby Scott, gave the vote of thanks, before the guests were shown round the classes currently in session in our wonderful new facilities.

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With her kind permission, I reproduce Professor Donald’s speech here in full, so that all our staff, students and the wider Academy community can benefit from her inspiring and positive message.

It’s wonderful to be here today. And it’s wonderful to see a school able to provide such fantastic facilities for science and with such a strong commitment to encouraging girls and young women to pursue science to A levels and university.

We’ve just heard the Chamber Choir sing Blue Skies. That is a song that I chose for one of my Desert Island Discs, because it has a particular significance for me. When I was in the USA and my research was going very badly, I found the balance in my life by singing Barbershop with three students in my (engineering) department. It helped me get through some otherwise miserable times and helped me to persist. To the students here I would say remember that life does not always go according to plan, but finding ways – and people – to help you through difficult periods is very important. Music was my escape and support.

Let me say straight away how deeply honoured I am to have been chosen to have this building named after me. It is not the sort of honour that I ever expected, not something that would ever have crossed my mind when I myself was a teenager.

Having first class facilities is undoubtedly something that will make a difference to every student – not to mention staff member – who works in the new building. So many schools have to make do with out of date and often depressing surroundings in which to do their science, and that is hardly likely to inspire the next generation that this is an exciting area to pursue.

Science – which I use as shorthand to include engineering and technology of course – has a crucial role to play in our world. Whether or not a child goes on to study science in later years, if they have a feeling of comfort with the subject means that so many of the big issues – be it climate change and the necessary energy transition we all have to make, or interpreting health risks or what AI may mean for our society – will not feel so scary and unapproachable.

Working at their science lessons in a modern block will provide a congenial atmosphere in which to get to grips with these important subjects.

And what about girls and women in science? Why do I care so passionately about this? Firstly there is the moral argument – why should 50% of the population feel that science is not for them, particularly given its role in empowering citizens in our democracy? But secondly there is the fact that we as a society need the best brains contributing to drive innovation and insight and losing these is a loss to society as a whole. We need to make sure that every young adult in this country whatever their gender, race or background – has access to good science teaching and encouragement to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. That some children are told they can’t do one subject or another either explicitly or simply implicitly in the messages our society and media give, is not good enough. We need their brains and their talent.

The L’Oréal tagline, as I learnt when I won the Laureate for Women in Science for Europe ten years ago, is that ‘The World needs science and science needs women’. One does not need to care about cosmetics – and I am a bad poster child for L’Oréal as I am very allergic to most of them – to recognize the truth and importance of that sentence.

When I was a teenager, attending an all girls school, no one told me it was odd to want to pursue physics. No one put me off and we had good facilities and good teaching. When I went to university I found out that I was in a minority and I have been ever since. I was the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge, something I still feel very proud of. I am, indeed, the first woman to be Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, a college that uniquely admits 70% of its students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We have an incredibly diverse intake but, because of its emphasis on these subjects, not as many young women as I would like. We are working on that, but I hope the brightest of your own students would aspire to come to a college like ours.

I am truly humbled that you chose to name your new block after me, not after the usual suspects of Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin. I hope in some small way the knowledge that women like me can thrive in the sciences will inspire future generations. I wish the school all the very best as this new space is up and running.

Congratulations and best wishes.

Professor Dame Athene Donald

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