By Courtney Suciu
On October 3, 2018, Dr. Donna Strickland became the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in physics. She shares this prestigious distinction with the likes of Marie Curie, who won in 1903 for her research on radiation, and the 1963 winner Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was recognized for her work on the structure of nuclei.
Born in Guelph, Ontario, Strickland earned a Bachelor of Engineering in Physics from McMaster University in Ontario and later a PhD in Physics from the University of Rochester in New York.
She was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics with her former academic advisor Gerard Mourou of Ecole Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for "their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses."
We were eager to learn more about Strickland who, according to The New York Times, calls herself a “laser jock.”1 Here are 3 of the most inspiring things we discovered about this extraordinary scholar and inventor.
Strickland’s work with Mourou “paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created,” according to a report from the Targeted News Service2.
In 1985, they published an article which revolutionized laser physics (and was Strickland’s first-ever scientific paper, as well as the groundwork for her doctoral thesis*). In their work together, Strickland and Mourou pioneered a new standard for high-intensity lasers, like the kind used in corrective eye surgery, with countless other areas of applications still being explored.
Their invention, a chirped pulse amplification (CPA) system, “stretched the laser pulses in time to reduce their peak power, then amplified them, and finally compressed them,” according to the news report. As a result, “If a pulse is compressed in time and becomes shorter, then more light is packed together in the same tiny space – the intensity of the pulse increases dramatically.”
In an interview with The Guardian3, Strickland said the idea was Mourou’s but that she “got it to work.”
She also told the National Post4 that “it's been a lot of fun” to see how this paper from over 30 years ago continues to evolve and generate excitement. “There's still interest in taking the discovery further,” she explained. “In 2010 there was a symposium just to congratulate Gerard and I on 25 years of CPA. People from around the world were there ... and they were all trying to say how they were going to be the ones to [make a laser of] 10 petawatts.’”
Wait. A peta-what? We’ll explain below.
In the National Post, Strickland recalled how 30 years ago as she prepared to deliver her first ever talk based on the paper detailing their development of a gigawatt laser, Mourou advised her to say “this is the way to make a petawatt laser.”
A petawatt is equal to one million billion watts, while a gigawatt is equal to a mere (!) million.
Strickland continued, “As a very young student I said, 'you want me to say we have a gigawatt laser but it's the way to make a petawatt?' And that's like six orders of magnitude more. Of course, I knew he was right, it just seemed very bombastic for me to say it in front of the experts of the world. I found that hard.”
Being “bombastic” is not something that ever got easier for Strickland. Her profile in The Guardian noted that for a “self-described recluse” the celebrity that comes with her win has been kind of jarring. “Two or three weeks ago, I was an ordinary human being and now I’m not,” Strickland told the newspaper.
This frenzy has been a distraction from doing what she loves best – running a laboratory for students at the University of Waterloo where according to The New York Times4 “one of her favorite activities is to generate a full color spectrum of white light from a narrow bandwidth of wavelengths.”
However, since her Nobel Prize announcement, she told The Guardian she’s only been able to spend an hour a day with her students and research partners. “In the meantime,” as the article detailed:
there are more interviews, more photoshoots, more talks. She has to go shopping for ball gowns – three for herself, as well as ones for her daughter and her sister. There are a lot of events during Nobel week in December – balls, lectures, concerts, dinners, a meet-and-greet with the Swedish royal family.
For some of us, that sounds like a fairytale. But for Strickland, who has always been about the science over fame or glory, it’s been overwhelming. “I’ve asked a couple of other Nobel laureates for advice,” Strickland added. “They all say the same thing: ‘Pace yourself. You can only do so much.’”
Despite concerns about the underrepresentation of women in STEM, Strickland said she never felt intimidated working in a field dominated by men. She told the National Post, “I sort of ignored that. Possibly that's why I didn't get stopped, because I just ignored it all. I actually don't think I even really noticed it so much.”
Strickland told the Post “I’ve always gotten paid equal to my colleagues and I feel I've been treated equally,” and throughout her career, she’s seen more women pursue careers in the sciences. “I feel that women should start to get to be recognized more because for some reason not all men want to recognize us or not all people, but I think that's a minority,” she added.
Looking back on her career, Strickland could only think of a handful incidents where someone had an issue with her as a woman. Once, as an undergraduate, she told The Guardian, she bested a male student in a notoriously challenging math class. “[H]e was so furious that he threatened to ‘pound’ her,” according the publication. “Strickland was shocked, but also inwardly delighted: ‘All I could think was: ‘Girl beat you. Girl beat you bad.’”
However, the overall focus on her gender surprised Strickland who explained to Guardian reporters, “I don’t see myself as a woman in science. I see myself as a scientist. I didn’t think that would be the big story. I thought the big story would be the science.”
Her overall message, for girls and boys as well as for women and men who might be nervous about breaking with convention in the pursuit of their passion, is an uplifting one. As she told the National Post, “If you want to do something, get out there and do it. That's all you can do.”
For further research
*Donna Strickland’s full-text dissertation is available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global:
Strickland, Donna T. Development of an Ultrabright Laser and an Application to Multiphoton Ionization, University of Rochester, Ann Arbor, 1989.
In addition, you can also access the full-text dissertations of these 2018 Nobel Prize winners:
Romer, Paul M. Dynamic Competitive Equilibria with Externalities, Increasing Returns, and Unbounded Growth The University of Chicago, Ann Arbor, 1983.
Arnold, Frances H. Design and Scale-up Of Affinity Separations (chromatography, Plate Height) University of California, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, 1985.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu