Canadian Trailblazer Donna Strickland Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Photo credit: Niklas Elmehed, © Nobel Media AB 2018

At 5 am Donna Strickland received a phone call that would forever change her life. She was jolted from a peaceful slumber, worried about the bad news that often comes with these types of abrupt early morning awakenings, only to be put “on hold” for 15 minutes. Tired and uncertain, she finally simply hung up. But upon checking her email, she saw a pressing message from Stockholm urging her to call them right back. That’s when she learned that she was one of three people (along with Gerard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin) to share in the honour of a Nobel Prize in Physics, not to mention the prize money (9 million Swedish Kroner, or roughly US$1 million of which Strickland and Mourou will share half, the other portion going to Ashkin).

Professor Donna Strickland “Laser Jock”

Born May 27th, 1959 in Guelph Ontario, Donna Strickland graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree (in Engineering Physics) from McMaster University and was only one of three women in a class of 25. She then went on to obtain her PhD in Physics (specializing in Optics) at the University of Rochester in 1989. Today, Strickland is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She is married to Doug Dykaar, an electrical engineer, and together they have two children. She playfully refers to herself as a “laser jock”.

So what did she actually win The Nobel Prize in Physics for?

While at Rochester in 1985, Strickland and her doctoral supervisor Gerard Mourou co-invented chirped pulse amplification for lasers – a method of generating ultrashort optical pulses of high intensity. This technique has made it possible to cut or drill holes in materials and living matter with incredible precision and is now used in a number of different applications, including corrective laser eye surgeries.

She is the first woman in 55 years, and only the third woman in history, to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. She is also the only living female physics laureate.

Joining the ranks of Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963), Strickland preaches feminism in science. She hopes that society will continue to notice and celebrate women physicists, a group she is honoured to be a part of.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an official statement: "In the words of Dr. Strickland, 'we need to celebrate women physicists' – and help motivate more women to pursue careers in science and technology. When women are empowered and have the tools they need to thrive in STEM fields, everyone benefits. While winning a Nobel Prize is a tremendous feat in its own right, it is even more special as we mark Women's History Month, a time to celebrate the many women who, like Dr. Strickland, have paved the way for future generations of women and girls.”

What does the future hold?

Strickland is still researching much of the same thing – trying to make different lasers that other people don’t have.

Professor, woman, mother, wife, laser jock – she’s now an icon and role model who will continue to inspire women, especially those pursuing non-traditional paths and careers.