Waterloo scientist wins Nobel Prize in Physics - A Review

Monday, November 19, 2018

Donna Strickland sitting at a table of optics in her lab.

Professor Donna Strickland helped revolutionize laser physics, becoming the third woman in history to win the prestigious physics prize.

A phone call at 5 a.m. usually means bad news. But for Donna Strickland, the early-morning call from Sweden brought good news: she had become the third woman in history to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics.

It is the pinnacle of scientific achievement, but in the days following the announcement it became clear that Strickland had entered the highly competitive field of laser physics and continues her fundamental research today for the sheer joy of it.

“I have always just done what I’ve wanted to do,” said Strickland, a professor in Waterloo’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “People ask about being a woman and I don’t even think I noticed it throughout my career.”

Strickland, a Guelph native who joined Waterloo in 1997, shares half of the $1.4 million prize with French laser physicist Gérard Mourou. She conducted her Nobel-winning research while a PhD student working with Mourou at the University of Rochester in New York. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that Mourou and Strickland paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by humankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985 and was the foundation of Strickland’s doctoral thesis.

“It was a fun thing to do and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it,” said Strickland. “It was a fun time in the field of short pulse lasers and it was a fun group to be in, so I put in long hours.”


The Nobel announcement in October catapulted Strickland into the global spotlight with media from around the world wanting an interview. She received more than 1,000 emails within a few days of the announcement. At one point, she was leaving a campus parking lot and had to pull over to take a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Feridun Hamdullahpur, Waterloo’s president and vice-chancellor, called it a “tremendous day for Professor Strickland and the University of Waterloo.” Charmaine Dean, vice-president of research, said Strickland’s “groundbreaking work is a testament to the importance of fundamental research.”


The research she and Mourou did back in the 1980s set the foundation for laser technology that is now so ubiquitous we tend to take it for granted.

Millions of people undergo what has become routine laser eye surgery. Billions of people around the world have used laser printers. Tools such as laser-based cameras are standard technology in laboratories around the world.

But in 1985, when Strickland was working on her PhD, that wasn’t the case. Although the laser was invented in 1960, the problem was how to amplify beams without damaging the laser amplifier in the process.


The breakthrough by Mourou and Strickland is called chirped pulse amplification (CPA), and the technique greatly expanded the uses for lasers. Strickland remembers the thrill of capturing their invention on camera.

“You do know when you are seeing something for the first time,” she said. “It was exciting.”

Strickland’s career took her across North America. After receiving her undergraduate degree from McMaster University, Strickland went to the University of Rochester, where a fellow Canadian invited her to check out Mourou’s laser lab.

Strickland said: “We walked into the lab and it was full of these red and green lasers. I just said, ‘Oh my God. It’s like working around a Christmas tree all the time. How fabulous is that?’ It was just sort of a gut reaction.”

Strickland spent three years as a research associate at the National Research Council of Canada, working with renowned physicist Paul Corkum. She later joined Princeton University as a member of the technical staff before returning to Canada in 1997 to work as a professor at the University of Waterloo, where she leads an ultrafast laser group that develops high-intensity laser systems.


She is just as passionate about fundamental science today as she was on that day back in the 1980s when she saw the invention that would one day win her a Nobel Prize. Strickland acknowledges the good that her research has spawned in the world, but says it is curiosity that drives her.

At a press conference on campus, Strickland advised young people to choose a career that is fun for them.

“The world works best if we all do what we’re good at … Did I ever think I should be out there helping humanity?” she asked. “No. I just think if we do what we’re really good at, it helps the world.”



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