Women. Winning the Nobel prize every sixty years or so.
“The world works best if we all do what we’re good at.”
–Donna Strickland Look, the Nobel prize committee has not now—nor will they ever—consult me on who should win that prestigious award. But this particular Badass Woman of STEM deserves it a few times over. Her name is Donna Strickland and she’s an optical physicist who likes to refer to herself as a ‘laser jock’.
Strickland was the first woman to receive the prize since 1963. Before that it was Marie Curie in 1903.
On October 2, 2018 Strickland won the Nobel prize, along with her doctoral adviser Gérard Mourou, and American scientist Arthur Ashkin. The award was for their work in optical tweezers. These tweezers are highly focused ‘tractor beams’ of light that can be used to grab particles, atoms and even living cells. They’re already being used to study the very building blocks of life. Strickland’s Nobel-prize-winning research will change our world for decades or even centuries to come.
Gérard Mourou came up with the theory of increasing laser intensity by orders of magnitude. He challenged Strickland to prove it out. She worked through many unanticipated challenges in order to make the theoretical practical, from building a pulse stretcher, to prototyping a laser amplifier, to developing a pulse compressor. In other words, she scienced the crap out of it.
Until her Nobel prize, Strickland wasn’t even a full professor. After winning, she applied and was promoted to a full professorship at the University of Waterloo.
Though she didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until October 2 of this year, her work in lasers began decades earlier. Her doctoral thesis “Development of an ultra-bright laser and an application to multi-photon ionization” was more than just a fun beach read—it was a foundation for a life’s work.
In 1985, she and Mourou invented chirped pulse lasers. These light beams are capable of making ultra-precise cuts, cuts which are now used to perform millions of corrective laser eye surgeries.
If it weren’t enough that she’s helped the blind to see, she’s currently leading a diverse group of physics students in an Ultrafast Laser Group at the University of Waterloo.
When asked about gender disparity in her field, and her decision to choose physics over being a stay-at-home mom, Strickland said, “The world works best if we all do what we’re good at.”
It sounds like good advice for anyone.