Donna Strickland's long journey from laser jock to third woman ever to win physics Nobel

The newly minted Nobel laureate says progress is being made with the representation of women in science.
by Denise Chow /
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The 5 a.m. phone call changed Donna Strickland's life in an instant.

It was Tuesday, Oct. 2. A representative from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was on the line from Stockholm calling to inform Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, that she had won the Nobel Prize in physics.

Strickland, a self-described "laser jock," recalled that it was a surreal moment: "No one can be ready for such an honor."

In winning the coveted award, which she shares with American physicist Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou of France, Strickland became only the third woman ever to win the physics prize and the first woman to win since 1963. Ashkin will receive half of the $1.4 million prize, and Strickland and Mourou will split the other half.

Strickland was chosen for the award in recognition of her role in developing a technique to generate the shortest, most intense laser pulses ever created. The research, done while Strickland was a graduate student working for Moreau at the University of Rochester, led to new techniques for corrective eye surgery and other applications in medicine and manufacturing.

A day after the announcement, NBC News MACH called Strickland to ask what it felt like to win a Nobel Prize for work she did in her 20s and why so few women win recognition for their scientific research. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACH: The research paper that led to your Nobel was published in 1985, when you were only 26. How do you top that?

Strickland: It’s hard to copy that, and so I don’t know that I’ve tried. My husband’s grandfather was an artist, and he did [a bust of] Alexander Graham Bell, which I have in my foyer. His children were very upset with that. They said, “You’ve made him look like a grumpy old man.” And then a newspaper article had Alexander Graham Bell saying, “I am a grumpy old man.” He really did talk about how he always thought he could top the telephone. Sometimes you just have to be happy you get one chance in life and not worry too much about whether you get two.

Were you aware at the time that this research would have such a big impact?

Certainly Gerard let me know, if I didn’t understand it myself. He was very aware that it was going to be big. I do think I appreciated at the time that I was getting to work on something that would possibly be very good. The first time I gave a talk, I was very, very nervous, and I gave a stilted talk. Gerard thought I hadn’t highlighted it enough, so he spoke about it in his talk the next day. And somebody behind me said, "Didn’t I hear you give this talk yesterday?" And I said, "Yes, but I didn’t tell you how beautiful it was." I will give Gerard credit not just for the science, but he spent a lot of time — and still does, actually — getting out there and just letting everybody know how important it is.

How does it feel to be only the third woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics?

A lot is being made of it, and I hope that’s not taking away from the two gentlemen who won with me, because their contributions are incredible. Obviously, I would have been bummed to be left out if I had found out I had been left out because I was a woman. But I never had that issue, so I don’t know what to say about it. Things are changing. I think for a long time we were just 10 percent women in physics, and so obviously people can see things in the way they’ve always been seen. But I think at this time in history, people are realizing that that’s obviously incorrect. People are becoming much more aware of making sure that everybody gets recognized.

Have you encountered discrimination in your career?

No, I haven’t. At least not so overtly that I took notice of it.

A scientist at CERN was recently suspended for saying that physics was “invented and built by men.” What do you make of that?

You know, there are always disgruntled people. When I was a first-year in grad school, there were 18 of us in the Ph.D. program, and four of us were women. Some men that did not get picked to be in the Ph.D. program and had to settle for being in the masters program wondered out loud whether or not the four of us got there because we were women. But they stopped because the four of us did well when the test scores came out. They understood that the four women were there based on our merit, and then they were quiet about it.

What sorts of changes do you see?

I talk about [Maria Goeppert Mayer] in my class and say I cited her work In my thesis for her 1939 work. She didn’t get paid to be a scientist until the ‘50s, and then she wins the Nobel Prize in the ‘60s. I’ve always been paid to do my work. Nobody thought that I should just follow my husband and if I wanted to do science on the side, that’s great for me, but that I was a woman and therefore not worthy of being paid. There have been tremendous strides. I think in always looking at the negative, one always wants also to see the positive and see that we are constantly making strides forward.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

In high school, I was very good in math and physics. I wasn’t good at much of anything else. Some people are good at a lot of things. I don’t know how they choose what to do. I couldn’t do athletic stuff, I wasn’t artistic, I have no musical ear, and I wasn’t good at writing. So I was pretty narrow in what I could do. I wasn’t thinking, “Can I do science?” I was thinking, “That’s the only thing I can do, so let’s do it.

What led you to laser research?

Back in the day, we didn’t have the [World Wide] Web. We would just be given by our guidance office the calendars of the various universities to look at where you might want to go. I was looking through the McMaster [University] one, and they had an engineering physics program. And a quarter of that was lasers and electro-optics. I just looked at that and thought "That just sounds so cool."

What are you planning to do with the prize money?

That I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that yet.

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