Millions of people undergo what has become routine laser eye surgery. Tools such as laser-based cameras that can create super slow-motion movies of chemical and physical reactions are standard technology in laboratories around the world.

Laser technology is now so ubiquitous, we tend to take it for granted.

But in 1985, when Donna Strickland, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who leads the ultrafast laser research team at the University of Waterloo, was working on her PhD, that wasn’t the case.

Although the laser was invented in 1960, the problem was how to boost the intensity of the beams in order to do more with lasers without damaging whatever the beams hit. Laser systems had to be large and expensive, and the intensity of the laser pulses had to be kept below a certain threshold to prevent them from being dangerous.

Strickland, in her first published experimental work, along with her thesis advisor Gérard Mourou at the University of Rochester, developed an ingenious solution.

They realized that by stretching, amplifying, and then compressing the beams, they could boost the intensity of the light dramatically.  It allowed more light to packed into a shorter time, increasing the intensity of the pulse, while allowing laser beams to cut into matter with extreme precision.

The breakthrough was called chirped pulse amplification, and the technique greatly expanded the uses for lasers.  Laser tools based on chirped pulse amplification are now employed in scientific, industrial, medical, energy, military and security applications.

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Strickland, 59, a Guelph native who joined the University of Waterloo in 1997, and Mourou, 74, who is now at the École Polytechnique in his native France, shared one half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in creating “tools made of light.”

The other half of the prize went to Arthur Ashkin, 96, a native of Brooklyn, New York, who retired from Bell Labs in 1992 and is being honored for his invention of optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with “laser beam fingers.”

Strickland is only the third woman in history to win a Nobel prize in physics, and the first in more than fifty years. The first was Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 (and then a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911). The second was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

Strickland’s achievement was built upon the fundamental work of Goeppert Mayer who developed the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms. Work that was done by Goeppert Mayer in kicking off the field of multi-photon ionization in the 1930s was cited in Strickland’s doctoral thesis.

In a telephone interview with the Royal Swedish Academy for the official Nobel Prize website, Strickland said she appreciates Curie and Goeppert Myer as trailblazers who worked as physicists in an era when women scientists couldn’t even get paid positions.

Donna Strickland on phone

Donna Strickland on an early-morning phone interview following the news that she had won a Nobel Prize for Physics.  Photo credit/Doug Dykaar​

But Strickland said she didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her rarity as a woman in this scientific field. “I'm not a woman who has been looking at all of these prizes and thinking why isn't there a woman.  I haven’t thought like that.”

 She says she pursued the work for the sheer joy of it.

“It was a fun thing to do and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it,” she said. “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.” In an interview with The Record in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the invention of lasers, Strickland described herself as a “laser jock.”

She still describes working with white light generation in her lab as almost magical.

 “I just think white light generation is just one of these remarkable things to see. One color of light goes into water or any clear anything, and out comes all the colors of the rainbow, she said, in the interview for the official website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.

Strickland says when she got the 5 a.m. call that she had won the Nobel Prize, she briefly wondered, as many other Nobel winners have, if it might be a prank. “But I knew it was the right day (for the announcement) and that would have been a cruel prank.”

Strickland will receive the prize at the ceremony in Stockholm in December.