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Donna Strickland adjusts to her newfound fame as a research rock star

Canada's newest Nobel laureate discusses the challenges of explaining her work, dealing with the sudden attention, and what to say to the Queen of Sweden.

By BRIAN OWENS | OCT 17 2018

Winning a Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of a scientific career, but the unexpected early morning phone call brings with it a whole new set of challenges. For Donna Strickland, who won a share of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics for her work on generating high-intensity, ultra-short laser pulses, it is a “life upside-down changing event.” But the University of Waterloo physicist can still joke about how surreal it is to suddenly become a research rock star for her very first scientific publication, in 1985, while she was still a doctoral student at the University of Rochester.

“It’s been downhill ever since. I can’t top this one,” she said with a laugh.

She now needs to come up with a way to explain that work in a compelling and simple way to a general audience in her Nobel lecture in Stockholm in December. She is working on an analogy that uses the example of the difference between tossing a handful of steam, water or ice at your face (in this analogy, the water molecules are photons, and your face is an atom). “We’re trying to squeeze a lot of photons into as small a volume as possible,” she said. “If you can get more photons into that volume, the more you can make the atom feel the light.”

But you can’t put that ice ball of photons inside a laser amplifier without wrecking it. So, Dr. Strickland, working with Gérard Mourou, her PhD supervisor and co-winner, stretched the laser pulse out, amplified it, and then compressed it again to get extremely powerful, ultra-short pulses of light that could rip electrons away from their parent atom. The technique, called chirped pulse amplification, has found many uses, including in laser eye surgery.

For Dr. Strickland, the biggest adjustment has been dealing with the sudden fame, especially with the added pressure of being just the third woman to win the Nobel for physics. “It is unbelievable to me that I will go down in the history books with Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer,” she said. “In no way can I wrap my head around thinking that I should possibly be mentioned with those two great women.”

Support from friends and family, as well as other Nobel laureates and even strangers has been valuable. The granddaughter of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won the Nobel Prize in 1963, reached out to share stories from her grandmother’s life; and the brother of Frances Arnold, one of this year’s winners in chemistry, sent a note to say Dr. Arnold was looking forward to meeting her in Stockholm and was glad that there was another woman to share the load of being a rare female Nobel laureate (Dr. Arnold is just the fifth woman to win in chemistry).

Dr. Strickland has spoken at length with Art McDonald, the Canadian winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015, and received an email from the 1997 winner, Bill Phillips, filled with useful advice – including a suggested topic of conversation with the Queen of Sweden. Dr. Phillips discussed his fudge recipe with the Queen and suggested that Dr. Strickland share the one for her peach upside-down cake, which he apparently heard about through the physics grapevine. “I can’t believe that famous scientists are sitting there discussing my peach upside-down cake,” she said.

That’s the funny thing about her newfound celebrity, she said. She has spent her career feeling excited and a little intimidated to see renowned scientists lecture or to meet them socially, “and now obviously people are going to think of me that way,” she said.

That can be an uncomfortable feeling for someone who describes herself as introverted and almost reclusive. So reclusive, in fact, that the Nobel Committee spent much of the morning of the prize announcement scrambling to find someone who knew her closely guarded cellphone number, so that they could make the 5 a.m. call to inform her of her win.

Nevertheless, she is planning to make use of the fame to help raise the profile of a project she has been working on with the Optical Society, the scientific body dedicated to advancing the study of light. As a member of the society’s International Photonics Advocacy Coalition, she has been reaching out to governments about the potential of photonics to help monitor environmental changes around the world – for example, by using optical sensors to measure changes in Arctic permafrost that cause roads and runways to buckle. She already brought up the issue with federal science minister Kirsty Duncan during her congratulatory phone call. “I said I was going to use my Nobel platform. That was the first and only time I’ve said that to somebody,” she said.

The final challenge is deciding what to wear to the extensive, and fancy, Nobel week in Stockholm. Dr. Strickland said she has already sought advice from Dr. McDonald’s wife about “the ballgown situation.” She joked that she is going to use her share of the prize money to buy dresses for herself, her daughter and her sister.

“There are three balls to go to,” she said. “But on top of that I need umpteen cocktail dresses for the other not-quite-balls.”

This is a real novelty for a dedicated experimentalist like Dr. Strickland. “Obviously, physicists as a rule don’t really get dressed up at all,” she said.

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  1. Nicola Koper / October 17, 2018 at 13:39

    Oh, University Affairs! While I think it’s fine for Dr. Strickland to talk about whatever she wants to in an interview, such as what to wear, should this be what characterizes this narrative? Is that what sets this story apart? Surely not … so maybe using it in the subheading for this article is… a miss. We don’t talk about what men wear to receive their Nobel prize. Why should that be the highlight here?

  2. Elle Ting / October 18, 2018 at 01:19

    “Dr. Strickland, you are being recognized for your groundbreaking work in laser pulse amplification and are only the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics–the first in 55 years to boot. So, sequins or no?”

    (Note that this same UA issue features an article on Athena SWAN, a gender equity initiative–a curious juxtaposition.)

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