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Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland’s tale of passion and oppportunity

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Donna Strickland - Belle DeMont photo illustration

‘Life as I knew it changed, completely...’

In 2018, Donna Strickland got a call that changed her life.

They did call her, but then they put her on hold. Thinking the call a prank, Professor Strickland hung up after waiting fifteen minutes. Five minutes later, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences emailed her to say ‘please call us,’ she realized the call was legit.

A Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo, Professor Strickland was told she’d been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Author Ashkin and Gérard Mourou, while still a grad student. Her early work launched an entirely new research discipline, and the science has since been applied in industry and medical fields, laser eye surgery being one of its most well-known applications.

Only the third woman to ever win the prize, 55 years after Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963) and 115 years after Marie Curie (1903), Professor Strickland is recognized worldwide as a radical change-maker.

She calls herself a ‘Laser Jock.’ And her appetite for talking lasers is irrepressible, her conversation typically peppered with talk of colours, pulses, stretching and compressing and the 24-7 lab language of her research passion. Recently, she set the science aside to talk about her unique pathway to the Nobel Prize and how life has changed, as scientist and woman.

What a difference a day makes…

One minute scientist and the next Nobel Laureate. Life as I knew it changed, completely and immediately. My schedule’s now booked well beyond 2020, and the naïve illusion the activity would be what normal scientists do, tour labs and talk science, has been shattered. Yes, some is still that, but what I also didn’t expect was that when I accepted the prize I’d be spending two days with a Royal family, sandwiched between King Carl Gustaf and Prince Daniel, with Crown Princess Victoria directly across the table, and the next day strolling the palace with Prince Carl Philip. Trust that I’ve had to augment my wardrobe significantly with ballgowns and cocktail dresses, and that’s not me.

Connecting the dots by people…

I always loved school and knew at a very early age I wanted a PhD. I saw McMaster’s program and thought it sounded like fun. For my post-grad, I asked other grad students where I should go, and they suggested Arizona. So I applied, and after not hearing back, I made a daytime long distance call, extremely expensive pre-Internet, only to be told my application was too late. Next was Alberta, but they wanted me in a different program than I wanted, so I ended up at Rochester. It was there I connected with a fellow who’d eyed my iron ring and knew I was Canadian, like him. When we chatted, I mentioned I wanted to work with lasers, and he walked me straight over to the laser lab and introduced me to Gerard.

Follow the yellow brick road…

My career did feel pretty charmed until I had to fit in a husband, that is. I like to joke that we tried marriage before we lived together. Both scientists, we each wanted to work in research. He already had a permanent research job in New Jersey, while I was in Ottawa. I took a research position in California, and after a year, I accepted a technical job at Princeton that took me off the research track. But I really wanted to live with my husband, in New Jersey. We continued looking for research jobs, and eventually, I got the job in Waterloo and took it. He followed me and went back to working in the industry.

The 2-body problem…

With couples who are both researchers, it often involves a unique ‘giving up’ which not a lot of people understand, outside of scientists. Marriage is always a give and take, requiring sacrifice, except scientists, have this added complication. When both spouses are researchers, it’s tough to get jobs where each partner is able to pursue their interests at the same institution. Universities now understand the issue, and they’re doing more to solve it, but it’s still difficult. So what often ends up happening is you do what works best at the time, with no right time in mind, and take turns.

Science by gender…

We women look around and see a lot of men. My gut says there are more women in biology and life sciences, but in physical science, only about 15% are women. What many don’t realize is that this number shows great positive change. In my day, the ratio was between 5% and 10%, depending. Slow progress is still progress. Add to that, there are only so many science jobs in the world. With the gender ratio in mind, it makes sense most are held by men. That will change as more women enter STEM fields, and in receiving the Nobel prize, my voice as a woman certainly has greater reach because I see the value in science and I walk the gender line, on the less represented side.

Yes’s and no’s by gender…

It’s important for everyone to do what they want and what makes them tick. If you can answer that question to yourself, whatever your gender, others can’t tell you differently. At the same time, know that on average, woman are generally asked to do more than anyone else. In the early years, I remember having the sense everyone wanted me to say yes, when I wanted to say no, in the push to get a woman to sit on every committee. It’s good to know how to say ‘no,’ firmly, but not miss out on the opportunities to be had when you’re pushed toward the right ‘yes.’

The power of a right ‘yes’…

Though I am a big believer in opportunities, I was reluctant to run for President of the (Optical Society) because I wasn’t sure if I’d be up for the job. But a colleague gave me all the reasons why I should say yes, and after I was elected, I was happy to say thank you for pushing me. As President, I was forced to be in the public eye, and in a science career, it’s important to put yourself out there, but it wasn’t my comfort zone. But I did it, anyway, and not only did it help my career, the experience really helped me in handling the onslaught that came with the Nobel prize.

Career advice to consider…

Tenacity and curiosity. Yes’s and no’s. These are words for a pathway to success, in science and in general.

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