A NobelCanadian Profile: Dr. Donna Strickland: Science, Education and Discovery
By: Denisa Popa
Denisa Popa is a PhD student at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian medical history. She holds an MA from the IHPST and a Hon. BSc in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, also from the University of Toronto. Denisa is excited to join the Defining Moments Canada team as a Contributing Historian for the Herzberg50 project.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Donna Strickland. In 2018, Strickland and Dr. Gérard Mourou[i] were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in “chirped pulse amplification” (CPA), which they describe as a “method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.”[ii] During two interviews with Defining Moments Canada, Dr. Strickland reflected on her Nobel journey, as well as her position as a Canadian Nobel winner. While the full interviews are available here, the following profile provides a glimpse into Strickland’s scientific career, her educational background and the important place that Nobel prizes occupy in Canadian science history.
Who is Dr. Donna Strickland?
Born on May 27, 1959, Strickland and her two siblings grew up in Guelph, Ontario.[iii] Her parents, a teacher and an electrical engineer, promoted education and encouraged her from a young age to attend university.[iv] According to her Nobel autobiography, Strickland enjoyed attending school from an early age, claiming she “was one of those rare kids who was happy to have summer vacation over so I could go back to school.”[v] In line with her enthusiasm for math and science, Strickland pursued an undergraduate degree in engineering physics at McMaster University.[vi] By 1989, she completed her PhD in optics under the supervision of Dr. Mourou at the University of Rochester.[vii] It was for her doctoral work on CPA with Mourou that she won the Nobel.
Throughout her career, she has worked at numerous scientific institutions in North America, including: the National Research Council Canada, Princeton University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.[viii] Currently, Strickland is a professor at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.[ix]
The Nobel Prize
Although Strickland and Mourou initially published their research on CPA in 1985, they received the Nobel Prize more than three decades later.[x] Strickland describes CPA as a method that “enables the most intense laser pulses ever created. It allows for precise, clean cuts that are ideal for transparent materials, such as slicing the cornea as part of corrective eye surgery or machining small glass parts.”[xi]
Why did Strickland choose to focus on CPA for her PhD? In her interview with DMC, she noted that it originated from her interest in “high order harmonic generation,” which Strickland describes as “a process that transforms the colour of the light out to the ultraviolet and beyond towards x-rays.”[xii] However, in order to study questions surrounding this topic she needed a special type of laser that could produce a much more intense beam than existed at the time.[xiii] CPA arose from that need.
Winning the Nobel Prize is a life-changing achievement for any scholar. I asked her how her life has changed over the four years since she won the award, and what has been the most memorable part. Here’s what she had to say:
“My life has changed a lot in some respects, and not at all in others. I get a lot of invitations to speak—more than I can possibly accept. I travel a lot more than I ever have. I have had incredible experiences where I’ve met rock stars, astronauts, and other noteworthy people doing really important work. It’s still amazing to me that I was at an event with people who have walked on the moon. At the Nobel banquet, I had a king on my left and a prince on my right. But I still have a lab where I conduct my research, and I still teach and supervise graduate students. I’m glad it hasn’t all changed.”[xiv]
A Lifelong Educational Journey
As a science enthusiast, Strickland has had a lifetime of experience with STEM education – first as a student and subsequently as an educator. When asked about her experience with STEM subjects growing up, Strickland credits her chemistry and physics teachers with piquing her interest in science and providing an excellent education that prepared her for university.[xv]
Indeed, Strickland highlights her high school chemistry teacher with “always showing us cool experiments with equipment she could borrow from the University of Guelph.”[xvi] When asked specifically about what it was like to attend school in Canada during the 1970s, Strickland noted that she never personally experienced barriers as a young woman studying STEM. As she put it, “I believed that a woman could do anything she wanted and I didn’t let anyone else tell me different. I also had a mother who told me to be whatever I wanted to be. I went to a high school where no one made a big deal about girls doing well in math and science.”[xvii]
We also asked Strickland if there is currently a key element of science education that she thinks may be currently overlooked. Here’s what she thinks about science education today:
“Science is about discovery, which means scientists are always asking questions about how everything works, from the entire universe down to the smallest particles and every complex thing in between. When we teach science from elementary school through undergraduate courses at university, we teach the students the science that has already been discovered and ask them to learn about that science. We test them on what they know. We do not ask them to question how everything works and we don’t test them on asking good questions. So, we don’t really prepare science students to become scientists until graduate school. We should address the mystery of science and discuss more often what we do not know and get the students to think about what questions should be asked.”[xviii]
A Canadian Laureate
Canadian Nobel laureates occupy a special place in Canadian history generally and the scientific community in particular. Since winning the Nobel Prize, Strickland told DMC, her opinion is sought out on numerous topics. As she puts it, “I am asked to sit on boards of directors of companies as well as scientific institutions. I have participated in panel discussions at conferences on everything from ocean research, to travelling to Mars, to science policy.”[xix]
Her post-Nobel experiences reflect those of previous Canadian winners. Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, a German-Canadian physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971, often spoke publicly about the importance of promoting scientific literacy among the wider population — a goal Strickland also values.[xx] “Science literacy” she said, “is something I hope to have some positive impact on. I would like to see Canada have more programs to bring scientists and excellent communicators together. The projects should be about combining science and music or science and art.”[xxi]
Finally, we asked Strickland how she reflects on winning the Nobel and what it means for Canadian science. Here’s what she had to say:
“It still kind of surprises me. Over the years colleagues asked if I thought CPA (Chirped-Pulse Amplification) would win a Nobel Prize, but I never thought I would win. One of the most surreal moments of my life was when I signed the register at the Nobel Foundation. Before they have you sign, they show you signatures in the book. For me they started with Albert Einstein and then Marie Curie. Not all names in the register are as famous as those first names I was shown, but I simply couldn’t believe that I was signing the same book as those legendary scientists. The Nobel Prize brings global recognition to the value of science and when a Canadian wins, it is validation that the work done by our scientists is exceptional and has made a change to society in some significant way. All Canadians can take pride in the accomplishment because together as a society we support the science done in the country. I know I am always very proud when I hear that a fellow Canadian has won a Nobel Prize.”[xxii]
Check out our full interview with Dr. Donna Strickland here.
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Wed. 15 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/summary/
Donna Strickland – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Thu. 9 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/strickland/biographical/
“Profile: Donna Strickland” University of Waterloo
“Donna Strickland discusses education, research and current projects.” Defining Moments Canada: NobelCanadian, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/donna-strickland-interview-with-denisa-popa/. Accessed 20 June 2022.
Popa, Denisa. “Gerhard Herzberg: Political and Scientific Responsibility.” Defining Moments Canada: Herzberg50, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/herzberg50/the-person/political-and-scientific-responsibility/. Accessed 21 June 2022.
“Audio Interview: Five Questions with Dr. Donna Strickland.” Defining Moments Canada: NobelCanadian, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/audio-interview-five-question-with-dr-donna-strickland/. Accessed 21 June 2022.
[i] Strickland and Mourou share half of the prize, each awarded ¼ while the other half was awarded to Arthur Ashkin “for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems”. (The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Wed. 15 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/summary/)
[ii] The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Wed. 15 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/summary/ & Donna Strickland – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Thu. 9 Jun 2022.
[iii] Donna Strickland – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Thu. 9 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/strickland/biographical/
[viii] “Profile: Donna Strickland” University of Waterloo https://uwaterloo.ca/physics-astronomy/people-profiles/donna-strickland
[x] Donna Strickland – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Thu. 9 Jun 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2018/strickland/biographical/
[xi] “Donna Strickland discusses education, research and current projects.” Defining Moments Canada: NobelCanadian, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/donna-strickland-interview-with-denisa-popa/. Accessed 20 June 2022.
[xx] Popa, Denisa. “Gerhard Herzberg: Political and Scientific Responsibility.” Defining Moments Canada: Herzberg50, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/herzberg50/the-person/political-and-scientific-responsibility/. Accessed 21 June 2022.
[xxi] “Donna Strickland discusses education, research and current projects.” Defining Moments Canada: NobelCanadian, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/donna-strickland-interview-with-denisa-popa/. Accessed 20 June 2022