From Fundamental to Functional: Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland accepts the inaugural Rev. Carrier Medal for her work in laser physics

Author: Deanna Csomo Ferrell

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Donna Strickland, one of the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, occasionally gives Zoom interviews from her home in Canada. While one might expect her background to contain books or photos of colorful laser beams—she is, after all, a laser physicist—the only visible item (other than her smiling face) is a portrait of a white-bearded man with a furrowed brow.

She might let an entire interview go by without mentioning her unique choice of backdrop. But not asking could omit a crucial bit of information about how Strickland views her successes and her career. The inaugural recipient of the Rev. Joseph Carrier C.S.C. Science Medal, Strickland accepted the award on November 3, 2022 in Jordan Hall of Science, and followed with a public lecture about her work.

“The reason I sit here, with this behind me, is this is a picture of the bust of Alexander Graham Bell,” she said during the Zoom interview before her visit. Her husband’s grandfather, Moses Wainer Dykaar, sculpted the bust of Bell in 1929, and it is now displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum along with another dozen sculptures of presidents, first ladies, and other American icons he crafted. Bell, a passionate teacher for the hearing impaired, invented the telephone in 1876 when he was only 29.

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Unfortunately, he reportedly regretted his inability to create an even better invention as he aged. And that strikes a chord with Strickland.

At 26, Strickland, now a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, invented the process for which she and her research supervisor, Gérard Mourou, shared the Nobel. Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) has revolutionized laser research and paved the way for applications including LASIK eye surgery and cell phone glass. The Nobel came 33 years later, and she decided she would not lament any lack of future success like Bell did. 

“I’m thinking, why do you have to ‘top’ the telephone, right?” she said. “We are still using telephones to this day.”

She outlined the CPA in her first published paper during graduate school at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. Though much has been made of the triumph of winning a Nobel based on her first published paper, she had been working diligently on projects that didn’t come to fruition, even as they informed the work that would lead to her future Nobel prize.

Science, as scientists know, is messy. There are no guarantees that hypotheses will be proven, and no guarantee that equipment won’t break. Failure is always an option.

“So I had a lot of failures, right?” Strickland said. “I remember one I feel bad about; I was given a senior student to work with, and he had been given this very special diode that had been made somewhere else to test, and I know that I destroyed it before he got any result.

“I felt very bad about that! Because that was supposed to be, I think, the culmination of his Ph.D. and showing what he could do with it, and I completely destroyed it.”

Of course, she had many successes during the course of her graduate work, and earned her doctorate from the University of Rochester in 1989. She worked in the laser division of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, beginning in 1991, on the opposite side of the country as her husband, Doug Dykaar, who had landed his dream job at Bell Laboratories. Within a year she joined the technical staff of Princeton University’s Advanced Technology Center for Photonics and Opto-electronic Materials.

When she accepted an offer to work as a professor at the University of Waterloo in 1997, her husband followed and took a series of industry jobs as she worked toward tenure. This wasn’t unexpected, because she was a teenager in the 1970s—at the height of the women’s liberation movement—and women at the time could dream about and plan for prominent careers.

In fact, though much is mentioned about the need for women to go into the so-called “hard sciences” like physics, math, or engineering, Strickland said she never thought much about it, noting that math and physics were the subjects she is best at. The first woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics was Marie Curie, in 1903, and even the second woman who won, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, had far fewer opportunities than Strickland had. 

Donna Strickland with Fr. John Jenkins and Santiago Schnell
Rev. John I. Jenkins, Donna Strickland, and Dean Santiago Schnell

“Maria Goeppert-Mayer didn’t get paid for her physics work until she was almost in her 50s, which is just ludicrous,” Strickland said, noting that Goeppert-Mayer was initially forced to follow her husband from job to job and essentially work as a secretary, doing theoretical physics in her spare time. She finally landed a tenured physics position in 1946 at the University of Chicago. However, during the year of her Nobel-winning discovery, her faculty merit card showed she was rated “average” overall. The only item she scored well on was her “ability to get along well with others,” Strickland said.

“But I don’t think I’ve gotten different reviews because I’m a woman,” Strickland noted, describing how far women have advanced in the time since even Notre Dame began admitting women in 1972. “Women’s lib in the 1970s was more about the possibilities, and not the negativity we hear today.

“I don’t see how (negativity) is going to convince younger women to go into my field.”

During a September 2022 visit to her alma mater, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (where she attended a street-naming ceremony in her honor, “Strickland Way”), Strickland discovered that women now comprise 40 percent of that university’s engineering class.

“I feel like we’re 80 percent of the way there, not worldwide, but we’re getting there,” she said. “But then you need to ask, how many indigenous students are there? It’s not going to be close to 5%, the percentage of the population.

“So I think it’s time to start putting efforts (for inclusive education) somewhere else, because if you look at the life sciences, it could be fun mining the statistics. For instance, where are the guys? Biology majors are 75 percent women.”

Regardless of which students go into which fields, however, Strickland said it’s important for the public to hear about science medals and commendations, including Notre Dame’s Rev. Carrier Medal. Many North Americans, in particular, do not appreciate the work of scientists, Strickland said. The large international prizes like the Nobel Prizes are naturally important, but the Carrier Medal is as well, because it localizes news of advancements in science, she said.

Those advancements include fundamental science, which is the foundation upon which other research is built. Her laser research was fundamental, but later led to corrective eye surgery for thousands of people worldwide, the ability for researchers to have tabletop lasers for their work, and for almost everyone to carry cell phones with carefully laser-cut glass screens in their pockets. 

“We need more people locally to understand the role of science and society, because it’s not necessarily the specific science someone did, but maybe in 20 or 30 years, the work will lead to something people will use,” she said.

Just like Bell’s telephone invention.

At first, many regarded his work as little more than a novelty, but the technology spread during the next 10 to15 years. By 1890, there were three telephones for every thousand people. By the mid-1902s, there were enough telephones for one in five. Certainly that’s an invention to have zero regrets about not surpassing. 

So even as Strickland continues her work with lasers, including a current project that could lead to more precise excision of tumors, possibly negating the need for radiation treatment, she won’t complain if her present and future work doesn’t exceed her Nobel Prize-winning research.

“I say, look, I am not going to try and top the CPA,” Strickland said. “I’m going to be happy my whole career, my whole life, that I got that opportunity to work on it.”