After undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Cambridge, Athene worked at Cornell University as a postdoctoral associate, before returning to Cambridge in 1981 and to the Cavendish Laboratory in 1983. She became Professor of Experimental Physics in 1998. Her major domain of study is soft matter physics, particularly its applications to living organisms and the relationship between structure and other properties. Her research has applied microscopy, and in particular Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy to the study of both synthetic and biological systems, notably protein aggregation.
She is Master of Churchill College, director of WiSETI, the University's Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative, and was the University's first Gender Equality Champion from 2010-14. Outside the university she sits on the ERC's Scientific Council and its Gender Equality Working Group, is chairing the Interdisciplinary Advisory Group for REF2021 and has previously chaired the Scientific Advisory Council of the Department of Culture, Media and Sports. She is a member of the Advisory Council of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and was a Trustee of the Science Museum Group from 2011-16. She regularly blogs about academic life, with a focus on women in science issues and has written about science for mainstream media including the Guardian/ Observer.
She was one of the five recipients of the 2009 L'Oreal/UNESCO Women in Science award. She also won the UKRC’s Women of Outstanding Achievement's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2010 Queen's Birthday Honours. Professor Dame Athene is the recipient of honorary degrees from 9 universities.