Canadian associate professor at the University of Waterloo, Donna Strickland, became the third women in history to win a Nobel Prize for physics. Before Strickland came Marie Curie, who won in 1903 for her radioactive substance research. Marie Goeppert Mayer, who discovered the nuclear shell structure, and then continued to work unpaid until 1963, is the second female awardee. For this reason, Strickland truly made history as she is now the first women in 55 years to have been awarded the prize for physics. Her path to receiving this prestigious award began with a spontaneous decision made four decades ago. A description of McMaster University’s laser program had caught the young teen’s eye. This prompted her to sign up, a decision that irrevocably changed her life. Not only would this be useful, she later thought, but also “profoundly cool.”
Tody, Strickland is being awarded for research conducted back in 1985 while working with her then PhD supervisor, French Physicist Gerard Mourou at the University of Rochester in New York. 33 years ago, when she arrived in Rochester to work with him, she was quickly put to work on a problem that was frustrating researchers across the globe. This dilemma addressed the fact that laser light power could not be increased without being ripped apart. Now, in 2018, the two have been recognized for their development in “chirped pulse amplification,” which is a way to create laser light blasts that deliver massive amounts of energy in less then a second. This discovery eventually led to the creation of laser eye surgery to correct myopia. Now, millions of corrective eye surgeries using the sharpest lasers possible are performed annually. Their technique has also opened up new research avenues, and led to a wide range of medical and industrial applications. In fact, there are many other uses which have not yet been explored. For this reason, Strickland’s work truly represents what the Nobel prize stands for. The prize is awarded to discoveries or inventions that lead to the bettering of humanity, something Strickland and Mourou clearly accomplished.
Despite all the glory she has received since her recognition, Strickland is adamant that her accomplishments would not have been possible without the help of Mourou. In fact, during an interview with the Globe and Mail, Strickland said “My PhD was not fast out of the gate. The first thing we tried did not work at all.” This statement kindly credited Mourou with helping put some of the missing puzzle pieces together, allowing them to complete their work. Although the research was a “straightforward concept,” making everything work together was the real challenge that both had to collaborate on to accomplish.
Currently, Strickland is sticking to her humble ways and still works as an associate professor at the University of Waterloo. This is a position she has occupied since the 1990s, and one she holds dear to her heart. Her priority, after all, has never been to hold the grandest title, but rather lead a research group specializing in ultrafast lasers.
The work accomplished by Donna Strickland serves as a huge inspiration for young girls across the world who aspire to work in the STEM sector. Her achievements also point out women’s lack of recognition in the sciences, and challenge us to think how this issue can be resolved for future generations.
By Selin Ozgur