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Donna Strickland: “It’s all about the science”

Donna Strickland Photo Alexander Mahmoud

Science has always been a driving force in Donna Strickland’s life. From the moment she discovered the world of laser physics, she’s been entranced by all the possibilities lasers represent for research, science and medicine.

One day last October that single-minded focus was interrupted by a five a.m. phone call from the Nobel Prize Committee. Before the call got disconnected and she had to call back, Strickland, 59, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, was told that she and Professor Gérard Mourou of France were sharing one-half of the 2018 Physics Prize for their development of Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA), a technique that revolutionized the field of high-intensity laser science.

“I was flabbergasted,” Strickland says. “It was exciting, there’s no other word for it. As soon as I hung up, I texted my husband and sister and my son and daughter. And they were all there in Sweden with me for the ceremony.”

 

Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland at the Nobel Prize award ceremony 2018. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud/Nobel Media AB

A double mantel of responsibility

Strickland’s Nobel Prize has garnered headlines not only for her work but just as much for her gender. She is only the third woman in the 118-year-history of the Nobel Prize in Physics, preceded by Marie Curie in 1903 and German-born US physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won in 1963.

That she broke a 55-year hiatus for women winning the Physics Prize startled Strickland. Since the news of her win, she’s been fielding as many questions about women in science as the science itself, which she hadn’t quite expected.

“The men who have won the Nobel Prizes in science are speaking about the important of the science. I have the double mantel of talking about the science and making sure that women’s voices are also heard,” Strickland says.

“There is a sense of change that is happening for women in science and there’s been a lot of work to get that change.”

That she won the Prize is a sign of progress, she says. “There is a sense of change that is happening for women in science and there’s been a lot of work to get that change. I feel it won’t be very many years before we see more women getting the Nobel Prizes in medicine and science.”

Strickland, who has spent her entire career in the male-dominated field of physics, says she has never experienced “all the barriers that women scientists say they have faced.”

The only hitch in her career, she adds, has been what is known as the “double-body problem.” She is married to another scientist, Douglas Dykaar, and finding academic positions for both of them at the same time and in the same community has not always been possible.

“We have both had setbacks in our careers and supported each other when one of us had an opportunity in academia,” she says. “We take turns.”

 

Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland. Photo: Jenny Öhman/Nordic Life Science

No ordinary life

Strickland says she doesn’t expect life to get back to normal for a couple of years as she juggles her teaching schedule, her research and the flurry of invitations to speak at conferences and the non-stop request for interviews.

She got a taste of that frenzied pace in Stockholm, she says, where it was “go-go-go all the time, as we rushed from one event the other. But it was certainly a thrill to sit beside a king and a prince and across from a princess. That’s not something that happens in my ordinary life.”

That’s a typical understatement for Strickland. When she thinks back to the mid-1980s when she was Mourou’s doctoral student at the University of Rochester, she remembers the work and the fun of the discovery of CPA. Her focus was simply on doing the science. The Nobel-winning research was published in 1985 and was the basis of Strickland’s thesis.

“I worked on it for one full year, morning, noon and night. At the time, this kind of experiment only existed in the big fusion labs. I knew it would lead to high-intensity laser physics. But I didn’t expect it to be as big a discovery as it has become.”

It was Mourou’s idea, she explains, to generate ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the material amplifying them. “It was up to me to figure out how to make it work. It was challenging in a lot of different ways. I worked on it for one full year, morning, noon and night. At the time, this kind of experiment only existed in the big fusion labs. I knew it would lead to high-intensity laser physics. But I didn’t expect it to be as big a discovery as it has become.”

Today these small and extremely powerful lasers are now used in corrective eye surgery, industrial machining and medical imaging. Despite wearing glasses and her great faith in lasers, Strickland says she herself won’t be undergoing laser eye surgery anytime soon.

“I don’t like my eyes touched. I don’t want anything near my eyes, including a laser. I’d have to be nearly blind to do laser surgery,” she says, laughing as she recalls how the makeup artist prior to the Nobel Prize banquet approached her with an eyelash curler. “’What is that thing?’ I asked. I don’t even wear mascara.”

 

Donna Strickland Photo Alexander Mahmoud

Donna Strickland. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud/Nobel Media AB

Follow your passion

As a girl, Strickland excelled in math and science and loved everything about school. “I knew as a child I wanted to do a PhD,” she says with a laugh.

When she enrolled at McMaster University she was torn between physics, which seemed like more fun, and electrical engineering, which promised more jobs. Fortunately, the university had a hybrid program, engineering physics, so she didn’t have to choose. “I could do both and then decide,” she says.

“You’re doing science for the sake of the science. There are easier ways to earn a living.”

Follow your passion is the advice she would give young scientists today. She recalls that other PhD students chose Mourou’s lab in Rochester because “they thought it would help them get a good job. A doctorate takes seven years. I always thought that was silly because you should do what you really want to do rather than game-play and see where a certain research position might take you. You’re doing science for the sake of the science. There are easier ways to earn a living.”

Today Strickland runs the ultrafast laser group at Waterloo, where she continues to do pioneering work in laser physics. “For quite a few years I’ve been working on an approach to try to create a wide range of colors. One of the holy grails since lasers came along is to see if you could have a very specific color. I’m the only one in the world working on this. It’s like using stop-action photography but on a molecular level.”

“I’m not a detail-oriented person, I am more a big-picture kind of person so to get students excited about the topic is the most fun.”

As much as Strickland loves doing basic research, she is a devoted teacher. “The most fun is passing on the excitement of science. I’m not a detail-oriented person, I am more a big-picture kind of person so to get students excited about the topic is the most fun.”

You can hear the smile in her voice as she adds, “I imagine more people will be signing up for my lasers class now that I’ve won the Nobel Prize.”