Major science award goes to British woman 'role model'

This article is more than 12 years old
Jacqui Thornton
Sat 15 Nov 2008 19.01 EST

A British scientist whose work could improve hip replacements and early tests for Alzheimer's has won one of the world's most respected prizes for female scientists.

Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, has become the second British scientist in the programme's 11-year history to be made a laureate of the For Women In Science awards, sponsored by L'Oréal-Unesco. Only one laureate is chosen per continent each year. Donald said she hoped that her win would encourage young women to take science seriously as a career. 'I know what the level of competition is like for this prize. It's hugely prestigious and a great honour, but the role model aspect is probably the most important thing.

'Having very visible, successful women who have not become complete anoraks is really important to keep girls doing science. They are put off it; they think they can't have a family and be a successful scientist. There are all these myths, but if you can show it is possible to succeed and be relatively normal, that's a hugely important message,' said Donald, who is married with children.

She began her research career working on plastics and the effects of cooking and processing starch in industrial food preparation. She even produced images of ice cream at various temperatures and recalls making her daughter 'livid' at her 11th birthday party by explaining the structure and properties of ice cream to her friends.

More importantly, Donald's work on brain proteins could contribute to the development of diagnostic tests and treatment for Alzheimer's and other neuro-degenerative diseases. Donald has also been studying the way cells adhere to foreign bodies. This work has implications for implants such as bone and hip replacements and prosthetic limbs.

'Most replacement hips use metal and they are not ideal. The question is: can you coat the metal with something that is more bio-compatible and less prone to wear? Ultimately it might be useful for someone designing a prosthetic limb,' she said.

Donald will receive the award at a ceremony in Paris next March. The last British winner was Anne McLaren, another Cambridge University professor, in 2001.