In physics, a culturally perceived “man’s science,” only two women had ever won the Nobel Prize, according to Rachel Ivie from the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics. This past year, in the fall of 2018, a third took home one of the most prestigious awards in science.
An associate professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, 59-year-old “laser jock” Dr. Donna Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1959. Her work at Waterloo includes running the Ultrafast Laser Group, a laboratory for students.
Dr. Strickland’s groundbreaking work in the world of physics went unacknowledged for more than 30 years. Physicists at the time were faced with a problem about lasers, the doctor’s specialty. The problem was how to amplify high energy lasers without destroying the amplifiers themselves. She solved that problem in a paper she wrote as a graduate student in 1985, suggesting stretching the laser pulses, amplifying them, and then compressing them again to make them more intense. This method is known as chirped pulse amplification. Her work provided the foundation to create some of the shortest and most powerful lasers ever, used in procedures like the Lasik eye surgery.
The doctor was just the third woman to win the annually awarded prize in physics since the awards first took place in 1901. Marie Curie was the first, winning twice, in 1903 and 1911, taking the prize for her work with radium and radioactivity. The second, in 1963, Maria Goeppert Mayer won with her developments in atomic nuclei, and for 54 years she was the last woman to win. In 2017, all nine people who won Nobel Prizes in science were White men. Though the number of women in physics is growing, Ivie says the disparities in this particular field of science are profound compared to others. She cites institutional issues like maternity leave, which have made it hard for women in any career to make major advancements. Dr. Strickland was even denied a Wikipedia page in May 2018, claiming that she was not “notable” enough for their guidelines.
Dr. Strickland shared the Nobel prize with 74-year old French physicist Gérard Mourou, her professor in graduate school when she published her award-winning paper, and American scientist Dr. Arthur Ashkin. Half of the money will be split between Dr. Strickland and Dr. Mourou, and Dr. Ashkin will receive the other $1 million.
Dr. Strickland does not take singular glory in winning the prize, saying that her work is also dependent on the women who won the prize before her. In this “man’s science” where women are constantly overshadowed, females need more role models like Strickland, Curie, and Mayer. It’s only when we shine a light on these figures that “man’s science” becomes a science for everyone.
The New York Times