Dr. Donna Strickland has made history, becoming only the third woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Physics. The University of Waterloo professor shares the 2018 award with Arthur Ashkin of the United States and Gérard Mourou of France. She is the first woman physicist to win this award in 55 years.
Dr. Strickland’s work in the field of laser physics has garnered her and mentor, Dr. Mourou, recognition in the field of laser optics.
The pair co-invented Chirped Pulse Amplification, a “method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses” at the University of Rochester in the 1980s. Their work helped pave the way for laser therapy targeting certain cancers, corrective laser eye surgeries, and the study of invasive microorganisms like bacteria and viruses.
The announcement of Dr. Strickland’s win comes 55 years after the last woman winner, Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Dr. Strickland herself was shocked that it had been so long since a woman had won the award. Such a gap could lead many to believe that women are not helping to advance science, but that could not be further from the truth.
A few days after the award was announced, Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University in Italy delivered a lecture at CERN in which he said, “physics was invented and built by men,” to an audience of young, predominantly women physicists.
Strumia’s comments don’t phase Dr. Strickland, who called his remarks “silly” and remarked that she never took those comments personally. The woman physicist emphasized that her colleagues have always treated her as an equal, noting that Goeppert-Mayer, the 1963 award winner, didn’t receive payment for much of her early career.
“I got paid the same as my male counterpart grad students and onward. So things have changed and hopefully keep changing for the better,” Dr. Strickland said.
Strickland is no stranger to success. In addition to the numerous procedures and techniques which derived from her doctoral dissertation, Dr. Strickland is an alumnus of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a fellow of The Optical Society. In an interview with Adam Smith, it was brought up that she might be the first person to receive a Nobel Prize for her first scientific publication.
Following the announcement, many people took to social media to voice their concern that Dr. Strickland is only an associate professor at her university. When asked about her status with the institution the woman physicist assured reporters by saying, “I never applied.”
“So I never filled out the paperwork,” she said. “It’s all on me. I think people are thinking it’s because I’m a woman, I’m being held back. I’m just a lazy person. I do what I want to do and that wasn’t worth doing.”
But Dr. Strickland remains wary of her status as a role model. Despite her award-winning research which will certainly give young women physicists hope, she feels that she might not be the best fit.
“A lot of women will talk about all the problems that they’ve had, and I just haven’t had them and I can’t put myself in their shoes. So, I feel like I can’t really be a role model for people who have struggled that way.”
In the end, the self-proclaimed laser jock made waves for women everywhere.
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