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Science Canada’s newest Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland, ‘just wanted to do something fun’

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, is photographed in her lab after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday.

PETER POWER/Reuters

Donna Strickland’s path to the Nobel Prize in physics started with a spur-of-the-moment decision four decades ago, when a description of a McMaster University program on lasers caught the high school student’s eye.

That produced a gut-level feeling that the versatile beams were not only useful, but supremely cool.

“I just wanted to do something fun,” said Dr. Strickland, a University of Waterloo researcher and now one of just three women in history to win the Nobel for physics after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. She was named a co-winner of the $1.4-million award on Tuesday.

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Dr. Strickland conducted her prize-winning research in 1985, while she was working with her then PhD supervisor, French physicist Gérard Mourou, at the University of Rochester in New York State. The pair were awarded a one-half share of the physics Nobel for developing what is known as chirped pulse amplification – a way to create blasts of laser light that deliver massive amounts of energy in a trillionth of a second or less. The technique is now used across a wide range of applications from laser eye surgery to glass cutting.

The other half of the prize goes to Arthur Ashkin, a U.S. researcher who was working at Bell Labs, a New Jersey research centre, in 1986 when he invented “optical tweezers,” a way of using laser light to hold and manipulate living cells.

Tom Znotins, a long-time friend of Dr. Strickland’s who was a graduate student when she first came to McMaster from nearby Guelph, Ont., in the late 1970s, said she quickly showed herself to be a smart and upbeat student. She was also determined to master her calling as one of three women in a class of 25 – a typical ratio for the time. (Women currently make up 27 per cent of the Hamilton university’s first-year engineering class.)

“She had to hold her own in a male populated profession,” said Dr. Znotins, who is now a tech industry consultant in Ottawa.

When she arrived in Rochester to work with Dr. Mourou, she was put to work on a problem that was vexing researchers: how to increase the power of laser light without ripping apart the laser.

“My PhD was not fast out of the gate,” Dr. Strickland recalls. “The first thing we tried didn’t work at all.”

She credits Dr. Mourou with the idea of spreading out a pulse of laser light to amplify it first and then squeezing it back together to make a pulse of much higher intensity. While the concept was straightforward, making it work was the puzzle Dr. Strickland had to solve.

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Part of the challenge was finding a way to spread the laser pulses out enough. Dr. Strickland managed this by putting it through a 1.4 kilometre-long fibre optic cable. That length was not chosen through a detailed calculation. It was what she was left with after a longer cable accidentally snapped in her hands as she was unwinding it.

In the end, the length proved sufficient. When Dr. Strickland got the device working, it produced the most intense laser light that had ever been generated before.

Paul Corkum, a laser specialist at the University of Ottawa, said the result opened the door to a more powerful generation of pulsing lasers, which have since become ubiquitous throughout research and industry.

After earning her PhD, Dr. Strickland came to Ottawa to work with Dr. Corkum at the National Research Council where, he said, her deep knowledge of lasers and down-to-earth style made her a welcome colleague. She later held positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Princeton University before coming almost full circle to the University of Waterloo, not far from where she grew up, where she has been an associate professor since the 1990s.

That job title raised eyebrows on social media as soon as Dr. Strickland was named a Nobel laureate because she is not a full professor at her university, where she leads a research group that specializes in ultrafast lasers.

Dr. Strickland says the explanation is a matter of priorities. She has never sought the higher title, which requires a candidate to spend time marshalling support and documentation for an academic review committee.

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“To me, it just wasn’t worth the bother,” she said.

At this point, the ever-efficient Dr. Strickland may have found a way to fast-track the process, as Waterloo celebrates Canada’s latest Nobel prize, said Bob Lemieux, the university’s dean of science.

“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” he added.

News spread quickly on Tuesday morning after Dr. Strickland’s routine was upended by a 5:30 a.m. phone call from the Nobel physics committee in Stockholm. Her win comes just three years after Queen’s University physicist Arthur McDonald was awarded a Nobel for leading a ground-breaking particle physics experiment underground in Sudbury, Ont.

Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, said Dr. Strickland’s achievement is a proud moment for Canada and for women in science.

“Different and diverse points of view make science stronger,” she added.

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Certainly, Dr. Strickland does not have to go far to serve as a role model to young female researchers. She and her husband, Doug Dykaar, also a physicist, have two children, including a daughter, Hannah, who is a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

Ms. Dykaar said that at first she thought her mother’s phone had been hacked when she got a text from her telling her about the Nobel prize.

She said the Nobel win offers an example to young researchers, particularly women, that there is a place for them in science.

“Seeing women celebrated definitely can help more people see that it’s possible for them, too,” she said.

Canadian scientist Donna Strickland says she expects more students will want to work with her after she shared in winning the Nobel Prize for Physics. The University of Waterloo researcher is only the third woman to earn the honour. The Canadian Press
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