When Donna Strickland was a newly arrived freshman at McMaster University in Hamilton in the late seventies, she found her name on a door in the residence where she would be living and saw that her faculty was listed as “English.”
It was a moment of confusion until it dawned on the young engineering physics student that to the people running the all-female dorm, the letters ENG could not possibly stand for anything else.
For Dr. Strickland, a University of Waterloo professor who last year became only the third woman (and the only one currently living) to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, it was the beginning of a long career of quietly changing peoples’ perceptions about the role and capabilities of women in science and engineering. She now hopes to extend that impact to the broader goal of improving science literacy in Canada.
Dr. Strickland’s achievement, together with that of Frances Arnold, a U.S. researcher who one day later became the fifth woman to receive the chemistry Nobel, drew widespread attention to how strikingly under-represented female researchers have been across the 118-year history of the most prestigious award in science.
It’s a situation that the Nobel committee, based Stockholm, Sweden, has said that it wants to change. When the 2019 Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry are announced on Monday through Wednesday of this week, they will be the first awarded in the wake of new measures aimed at improving the diversity of nominees.
Even before those changes, it’s clear that Dr. Strickland’s historic win put her in the public spotlight like few of her fellow laureates. For example, not many get to be featured as one of InStyle magazine’s “BadAss Women,” as she was last month. The exposure has meant a hectic schedule of travel and speaking engagements that has so far taken her to 11 countries. Along the way, she has hobnobbed with Apollo lunar astronauts, talked shop with Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May and had an audience with the Pope. The experience has meant coming to terms with the idea of being a living role model.
“Other than being out there, I haven’t done anything different,” she told The Globe and Mail during a visit to her alma mater. “There’s no point in me being something other than me.”
At a lunch with McMaster engineering physics students, Dr. Strickland, who has an easy-going manner, admitted that in her younger years she didn’t look to others for inspiration. For one thing, she said, before the internet, it was not so easy to find examples of contemporary women in science, and remote historical figures did not especially resonate with her.
“It’s more about who influenced me than who inspired me,” she said. “My parents were definitely the biggest influence in my life.”
While growing up in Guelph, Ont., as the daughter of an English teacher and an electrical engineer, Dr. Strickland said it was her own gut reactions, rather than role models, that drew her toward the sciences, and to lasers in particular. After graduating from McMaster she went on to a PhD at the University of Rochester in the 1980s where, together with her supervisor, Gérard Mourou, she demonstrated the principle of “chirped pulse amplification,” a method of greatly increasing the power delivered by laser light.
Dr. Strickland said she was conscious of being one of a very few women in the labs where she worked, but added that she saw herself as “one of the guys” and felt lucky that, in her case, her male colleagues treated her the same way.
Now, Dr. Strickland said she would like to use her barrier-breaking win to boost research in photonics – a research area where Canada was once a busy hub before the 2001 collapse of telecom giant, Nortel.
“We could not ask for a better spokesperson,” said Réal Valeé, director of Laval University’s photonics research centre.
In Ottawa, Dr. Strickland has touted the application of photonics to climate change and advocated for Canadian participation in a global network of environmental monitoring focused on the Arctic. Closer to home, she said her dream is to establish an institute for photonics to operate in parallel with the University of Waterloo’s now-well-established centres for quantum research.
Both efforts would benefit from her broader goal of improving public engagement with science in Canada.
“The point is that everybody needs to get on board," Dr. Strickland added. "We read to our kids at bedtime because we want to have literacy, but what are we doing to make sure kids are equally fascinated by science?”
Back at McMaster, administrators say there is evidence of a “Donna Effect," as seen in a 47-per-cent jump in enrolment this year in engineering physics, including a doubling of women in the program.
After Dr. Strickland’s lunch with students, dean of science Maureen MacDonald, said the Nobel laureate’s impact was as much about her personality as her program choice.
“They were really admiring her qualities – her openness, her humour, her determination, her perseverance, her humility," Dr. MacDonald said. “Sometimes that opens a window that lets students ask if they see themselves reflected in that person.”