In October, Physicist Donna Strickland became the third woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. “It’s kind of mind boggling, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s not like I was thinking, ‘Oh, somebody should give me a Nobel Prize.’ It’s sort of surreal.”
Strickland has now joined Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in the small rank of women who have won Nobel Prizes in Physics. Marie Curie won the prize in 1903 for her research on radioactive substances and Goeppert-Mayer received hers for the discovery of the nuclear shell structure.
Strickland’s latest achievement comes as a victory for women who see this accomplishment as another pavestone in the pathway to quality. Not only is she a role model for women working in STEM, but the achievement was announced a day after an Italian physicist was suspended from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) for saying that physics was “invented and built by men.”
The CERN controversy brings to light what many already know; women continue to face obstacles in the field of science. Only 35% of women hold degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and an even smaller amount (20%) hold bachelor’s degrees in physics. While Strickland’s Nobel Prize shows us, that women are beginning to make headway in these fields, it also shows us that there is still work to be done to help women increase in these areas.
“I think more and more people are realizing that it can’t even just be women that keep saying, ‘We need this,’ Strickland says. “Men have to get on board, and the majority of men are absolutely on board, so sometimes it’s just inertia.”
Currently, Strickland is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Her doctoral adviser, Gérard Mourou, shares the Nobel Prize with her for research she completed in 1985 as a 26-year-old graduate student. Using a technique known as “chirped pulse amplification”, they were able to create ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material.” This breakthrough resulted in it now being used today in millions of corrective eye surgeries as well as for other applications.
Strickland and Mourou also share the prize with Arthur Ashkin, who invented “optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers.”
“We did seem to be on the cutting edge of laser science, and I think we were all aware of that,” Strickland says. “I’ve done other work that I’m very proud of and that is fun to think about and do. Is it going to get me another Nobel Prize? Probably not.”
If she could go back in time and give herself one piece of advice she would say, “Hang on for the ride. It’s been an excellent ride. I’ve had a great career.”
Congratulations Donna Strickland. May you continue to pave the way for women in STEM and show them that anything is possible if you are willing to put in the work.