by Matthew Yeh
Ever wondered how laser eye surgery can be so precise, or how scientists can study processes that unravel over a billionth of a billionth of a second? Donna Strickland has got you covered! While a PhD student at the University of Rochester, she developed the technique of chirped pulse amplification (CPA), thus enabling the creation of ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses. Beyond LASIK, CPA also finds application in precision manufacturing, potential cancer treatments, and fundamental physics studies. For this work, Strickland shared half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, making her the first woman in 55 years to be honored and only the third throughout the prize’s century-long history.
Born in Canada to an electrical engineer and an English teacher, Strickland showed an early penchant for math and physics. She decided to develop this interest in college, pursuing a degree in engineering physics at McMaster University – in no small part because of their selection of laser courses. There, she was one of only three women in a class of 25.
For her graduate studies, Strickland relocated from Canada to the United States to join the lab of Gérard Mourou, with whom she shared the Nobel Prize. At the time, scientists had already figured out how to take lasers, which create highly directional beams of light, and have them emit in pulses. But there seemed to be a limit to how powerful people could make these pulses, because at a certain point, the laser would self-destruct. Thinking about this issue, Mourou had the idea that if you could stretch out a laser pulse, effectively reducing the power, then you should be able to safely amplify this stretched out pulse without self-destructing. Recompress the light at the end, and voilà, you have an ultrafast, high power laser pulse—at least, in theory. Strickland then came along and made this idea a reality. Of course, it took plenty of hard work (at one point, she had to track down where exactly a 2.5 km-long fiber optic cable had broken). But in the end, as Strickland aptly summarized during her acceptance speech: “It is truly an amazing feeling when you know that you have built something that no one else ever has – and it actually works.”
Now a professor at the University of Waterloo, Strickland continues to be an active researcher in ultrafast laser science. Some topics that her group has recently pursued include the development of high intensity lasers in new colors for gas-sensing, as well as studies of how nonlinear pulsed laser responses can potentially cure farsightedness. Outside of the lab, she has also participated in numerous efforts by Waterloo and the Canadian Association of Physicists to make science more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. Importantly, as she noted in an interview with the Guardian: “I don’t see myself as a woman in science. I see myself as a scientist.”
More Fun Facts about Donna Strickland
- Despite paving the way for its development, Strickland does not plan on ever getting laser eye surgery.
- When she was awarded the Nobel Prize, Strickland was still technically an Associate Professor since she never bothered to fill out the paperwork: “It doesn’t necessarily carry a pay raise.”
- She has also done a video for WIRED!
Matt Yeh is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Applied Physics program at Harvard University. He is interested in studying how light-matter interaction can be used for quantum information science.
Photograph of Donna Strickland licensed under CC BY 2.0.
This biography is part of our “Picture a Scientist” initiative. To learn more about the amazing men and women who paved the way for modern scientific discovery, check out our homepage.