Donna Strickland, the girl who played with lasers … and won a Nobel Physics Prize for it.
Once upon a long time ago, a couple took their young daughter on a trip to the Ontario Science Center in Toronto. The museum was huge. The father, an electrical engineer, delighted. He wanted to show his daughter everything, especially the big laser.
“You’ll want to see this. Lasers are the way of the future,”
Donna Strickland was born in 1959, only a few years before lasers were invented in the 1960s and began to fascinate scientists. Donna was no exception. As an undergraduate student, she majored in engineering physics, specializing in electro-optics.
“It sounded so cool!”
The passion held; she pursued a Ph. D. at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics. There, with her supervisor, Gérard Mourou, she began to work on a technique called chirped pulse amplification.
This method was developed to generate “high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses, creating groundbreaking tools from beams of light.” It paved the way for the creation of the shortest, most intense laser beams ever.
The applications of this innovation were impressive and vast: in drilling, cutting, data storage, manufacturing, and surgery. Today, for instance, these lasers allow doctors to perform millions of corrective eye surgeries every year. In the future, they might be used to accelerate subatomic particles, like the Large Hadron Collider.
“It was just a fun thing to do, and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it,”
she said simply of her work.
In 2018, the Nobel Committee recognized Donna, Mourou, and physicist Arthur Ashkin for their research on lasers. By accepting the prize, Strickland became the third female Physics Laureate in history, after Marie Curie, who won in 1903, and Maria Goeppert Mayer, in 1963.
Gender, to Strickland, has no role to play in determining a person’s skills or mental capabilities. She never let hers distract her from the science. However, that so few women have been recognized for their contributions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a sad reality.
But times are changing and women like Donna are a testament to this. Her own parents were fully supportive of her career choices, as was and is her husband. He is also a scientist and an electrical engineer. Her daughter is in graduate school studying astrophysics. Her son is studying comedy.
“We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in time, it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate. I’m honored to be one of those women.”
Honored as she is, Donna Strickland is not enamored with the spotlight. Her own happiness lies between the classroom and her research lab. She remains passionate about lasers and pushing their boundaries, as well as sharing her knowledge with others.
“My job is to impart excitement.”
She does. It is inspiring, not only to the millions who, thanks to her, can see the world around them clearly without needing glasses. But also to every girl who likes science, math, technology, engineering.
Donna’s message to the world is clear: there is no such thing as a woman or a man scientist. There are only scientists and there is science, and it is a fascinating field.