NOBEL LAUREATE DONNA STRICKLAND SETS THE WORLD OF PHYSICS ALIGHT
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.
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.
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