Dr. Donna Strickland

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Packing a laser punch

Photo of Dr. Donna StricklandA self-described “laser jock,” Donna Strickland inhabits a rarified but highly competitive world where it’s all about “who has the shortest pulse, the most energy, the highest average power.”

Internationally renowned for the development of chirped pulse amplification (CPA) more than 20 years ago with her PhD supervisor Gérard Mourou, the physics professor still finds laser research a thrill. She recalls her first visit to a laser lab, thinking the colours were like a Christmas tree. “Part of me just likes the fun of playing with colourful lasers,” she laughs.

Another part of Strickland enjoys the competitive rush, and is hard at work creating the shortest laser pulse that packs the biggest punch. “To get a very short pulse, you need a lot of colours,” she explains. “I’m trying to create a picket fence of colours to make an extremely short pulse — a laser hammer — with a lot of energy.” 

When she says “short,” she’s talking femtoseconds: “the time it takes for light to move a distance less than the size of a human hair.”

With funding from the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, Strickland is working with a team of graduate and undergraduate students to develop a high-intensity, mid-infrared laser. Such a tool could be used for spectroscopy. Another laser could be a tool for a molecular physicist to capture a picture of a molecular reaction over time, “like the stroboscope of a horse jumping.” There are applications in nanotechnology, as well.

For her "pioneering contributions to ultrafast laser and optical science, in particular for chirped pulse amplification and ultrafast nonlinear optics," Strickland has recently been named a Fellow of the Optical Society of America. CPA technology has been used in fields as diverse as micromachining and eye surgery.