Laser Vi­sion

NO­BEL LAU­RE­ATE DONNA STRICK­LAND SETS THE WORLD OF PHYSICS ALIGHT

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Why She’s a Badass

In 117 years of No­bel his­tory, only three women have been awarded the prize in physics (com­pared with 206 men). This fact is not lost on its most re­cent fe­male re­cip­i­ent,

Cana­dian physi­cist Donna

Strick­land, but that’s also not her fo­cus. A pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Water­loo, she won a No­bel in De­cem­ber for her pi­o­neer­ing work with lasers, specif­i­cally the invention of chirped pulse am­pli­fi­ca­tion (CPA), a method that paved the way for the most in­tense laser pulses ever cre­ated. Strick­land laid the ground­work for CPA in her very first aca­demic pa­per, pub­lished when she was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in 1985. Her PH.D. su­per­vi­sor at the time, Gérard Mourou, with whom she shares the prize, came up with the idea, but it was Strick­land who had to fig­ure out how to make it work. Their dis­cov­ery in­tro­duced a new gen­er­a­tion of lasers that are pre­cise, pow­er­ful, and ca­pa­ble of mak­ing clean cuts, even in trans­par­ent and liv­ing mat­ter. These days they are used in a va­ri­ety of prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions, most no­tably cor­rec­tive eye surgery, which is per­formed on mil­lions of peo­ple each year. CPA has also opened the doors for tech­niques that per­haps one day can re­move in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mors or even zap nu­clear waste.

XX Fac­tor

More com­fort­able in the lab than on the world stage, Strick­land says it’s amaz­ing to her that she is viewed as a role model. Yet, af­ter decades of women in physics be­ing snubbed by the No­bel Com­mit­tee—we’re talk­ing the women who dis­cov­ered what stars are made of, nu­clear fis­sion, and pul­sars— Strick­land is con­sid­ered a rock star in the sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy world. She ac­knowl­edges that she feels a cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­ity now that women and girls look up to her but adds, “I don’t like talk­ing so much about it. We can’t all be physi­cists, and we can’t all want to be physi­cists.” In­stead, she says, “girls should be think­ing about what they re­ally want to do and not lis­ten­ing to other peo­ple. That’s the main mes­sage I want to give to young peo­ple whether they’re girls or boys.”

Eyes on the Prize

The daugh­ter of an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer fa­ther and an English and his­tory teacher mother liv­ing in Guelph, On­tario, Strick­land did well in school over­all but says, “Where I ex­celled was math and sci­ence,” adding, “I think I just had it in my genes.” She says her mother also had a tal­ent for these sub­jects but was per­suaded to go into lib­eral arts be­cause she was a girl. “I cer­tainly grew up hear­ing her say she should have stuck to her guns,” says Strick­land of her mom. If any­one told a young Strick­land she should stop pur­su­ing so-called boys’ sub­jects, she just laughed. “I thought it was funny,” she says. “To me, it didn’t make any sense what they said. It didn’t en­ter my head to be dis­cour­aged.” Strick­land has passed on this pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to her own daugh­ter, Han­nah, who is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in as­tro­physics.

Meta Physics

How has Strick­land’s life changed since win­ning the No­bel Prize? For one, she is now a full pro­fes­sor at her univer­sity (at the time of her win she was an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor), and more stu­dents want to en­roll in her classes. The most sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence, she says, was hav­ing an au­di­ence with Pope Fran­cis. “I have to say it was one of the few times in my life that I was tongue-tied,” she jokes. “That was pretty in­cred­i­ble—but also sit­ting with the king [of Swe­den, at the No­bel Prize cer­e­mony], and the next night I’m in a palace sit­ting with a prince. I mean, how did this hap­pen to me?”

—JEN­NIFER MA­SON Girls should be think­ing about what they re­ally want to do and not lis­ten­ing to other peo­ple.”

Strick­land in her lab at the Univer­sity of Water­loo on the day her No­bel Prize was an­nounced

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