55 Years

In October 2018, it was announced that the Nobel Prize in Physics was dedicated to ‘ground breaking invention in the field of laser physics’; one half was awarded to Arthur Ashkin for his work on ‘optical tweezers and their application to biological systems’, and the other was to be shared between French Physicist, Gérard Mourou, and Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland, for their work in ‘methods generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses’. By picking up this year’s Nobel Physics Prize, Donna Strickland has ended the 55-year drought in female laureates and has become the third woman to ever be awarded.

Donna Strickland is a Canadian physicist and attended McMaster University before completing both her Masters and PhD in the University of Rochester. She is currently working in Waterloo University, where she has been an associate professor since 1997. Strickland became a fellow of the Optical Society in 2008 and has been working with lasers for most of her career. She is extremely passionate about her work; in 2010 she told The Record ‘The most fun part of my day is when I get to play with my lasers’, and has referred to herself as a ‘laser jock’. Her philosophy seems to be that by doing what you love, not only do you look forward to going into work, but you will also be more successful. When asked by nobelprize.org where her seemingly natural gift of experimental physics came from, she replied: ‘It was just a fun thing to do, and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it. It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard’.

In 1985, while conducting the research for her PhD, Strickland and her supervisor, Gérard Mourou, worked on raising the peak power of laser pulses. They developed a technique of chirped pulse amplification, which stretches out the peak spectroscopy and the time of ultra-short laser pulses before passing the pulse through gratings which ensure the low frequency component’s path is shorter than that of the high frequency component.  The signal is then amplified and re-compressed.  This reduces limitations of peak power caused by large laser pulses (around gigawatts per square meter) damaging the lasers. Before this strategy was developed, there were short pulse lasers and high pulse lasers, but they could not be combined. This method has been used for many things, the most famous being to perform Lasik eye surgery. The research and development of these lasers are Strickland and Mourou have been given the Nobel Prize. (Link to her PhD: http://www.lle.rochester.edu/media/publications/documents/theses/Strickl...)

The other two female physicists to have won the physics Nobel are Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer; Curie won the award in 1903 for her research on radiation phenomena and Mayer won the award in 1963 for her discoveries in nuclear structure.  During a talk at the University of Waterloo in October 2018, Strickland explained Mayer’s experiences, saying she was ‘allowed’ to research and teach at the universities her husband worked for, but was unpaid until the 1950's, even though some of her research dated back to 1939. Strickland followed by stating she felt as though she had always been ‘paid the same, and treated the same’ as any of her male colleagues. This evidently shows the progression of equality within the Physics industry and gives a very positive story for female science in many fields. Strickland has also spoken about her surprise on the focus of her gender rather than her award itself. In the Guardian, she is quoted saying: ‘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.’

Donna Strickland is proof that passion and hard work are the keys to success. After doing what she loves for many years, she has earned one of the most prestigious awards in the scientific community. She is an inspiration to follow your dreams, and I hope to one day love my job as much as Strickland loves hers. Her name will go down in history for the magnificent work in the development in lasers, and she has become a massive inspiration for many developing scientists, including myself.