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Issue:
January 2019 - Donna Strickland

Nobel Laureate generates incredible excitement

The University of Waterloo experiences campus-wide impact of Strickland's physics honour

by Jon Rohr

It’s a phrase that resonates with everyone: “The Nobel Prize.” And last month, a University of Waterloo professor became one of the elite group to receive that honour. Donna Strickland is a optical physicist and pioneer in the field of pulsed lasers. In December, she was formally awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, presented to her by the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf. Strickland received the honour together with Gerard Mourou, for the invention of chirped pulse amplification.

“I’ve never seen so much pride at the University of Waterloo,” says Kelly McManus, Senior Director, Community Relations at the University of Waterloo. “Our department of Physics, our faculty of science, our entire university is really proud in terms of the number of new initiatives that are rolling out that are honouring and building on Professor Strickland’s work.”

Life for Strickland, and for those around her, has suddenly changed. “The excitement is incredible. Everybody all around me so excited, whether it’s my immediate family that is excited to be with me, to my friends, to every person I meet practically wants to have a selfie with me,” says Strickland in a telephone interview from Sweden, the day after she was presented the Nobel Prize Award.

This is additional encouragement for “women who are entering into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).” Strickland highlighted the fact that “many people brought their daughters to meet me, and more women are talking to me about being an inspiration, and so, I think times are changing and things keep moving forward. I’m just one little piece of the whole thing.”

Strickland says that memorable moments include meeting Sweden’s Royal family. “It was just an unbelievable treat, very few people get that opportunity, don’t they, that I got to walk in, with the King of Sweden … And the really fun conversation at the dinner table. You think it would be stiff, with Royals, but it was not at all. It was just a really enjoyable night.”

Since the announcement, Dr. Strickland has been thinking a lot about her Nobel Lecture, in part because it was to be a public lecture. Which means, “anybody should be able to come and understand it.” Strickland worked on that “quite a bit. Eventually, I was able to explain Photo Energy [related] to the size of a basketball player, and that analogy worked, as a lot of people told me that they understood it like that.” Next step is for Strickland to “take that talk on the road… so I have a pretty good analogy for how my work can be compared to everyday things.” She says it’s been “a learning experience to change how you talk, in a completely different way … saying the same thing in a completely different way. But it does take some effort to figure out how to do that.”

In 2020, she’ll start giving talks at science conferences as well as universities. Along with her roadshow, and having “this new platform”, Strickland has started to talk about Photonics, for environmental measurement and monitoring. “Now I am able to have a bit more political voice in that, and I have been invited by Environment Canada to speak at their [climate change] research meeting in February in Ottawa”. Photonics is a personal interest for Strickland, although she doesn’t work in Photonics. “I work on the idea that Photonics is important and is probably going to be the technology of the 21st century.” She also works with The Optical Society, the leading professional society in optics and photonics, “to help to make sure all governments understand that. And that every country should be monitoring the environment now, and we think photonics has a great big role to play with that”.

For the next several months, Strickland will be teaching as much as she can – “in January, certainly the first two weeks” – and then the course will be team taught, while she is travelling. Her hopes are to teach at least “half of the course this term,” and “I still want to do research.”

“I got to walk in, with the King of Sweden … And the really fun conversation at the dinner table. You think it would be stiff, with Royals, but it was not at all. It was just a really enjoyable night.”

Strickland is now a full professor, whose class enrolment has doubled in size – students want to be taught by a Nobel Laureate. Strickland says her designation as a full professor “really only changed my title ... it’s what other people thought was a big deal.”

Mike Hudson, UW Professor of Physics and Astronomy, told Exchange, “this is the highest award you can receive in physics and it’s world renowned. It will enormously raise the visibility of the University of Waterloo, puts us on a global stage, even more than we are already.”

Ray Laflamme is Canada Research Chair in Quantum Computing and the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis “John von Neumann” Chair in Quantum Information, at UW. He highlights “the amount of energy that this brings... This brings us all together, not only the physics department, but the faculty of science, the university as a whole, including the Perimeter Institute… Thanks to Donna … she did the hard work.” Laflamme believes Strickland’s award “raises the bar for all of us. This is one of the great things that happens, when one of us receives this – not only the person receiving a prize for the great work they have done, but all of us, the colleagues, also raise the bar and say, ‘What we can achieve if we become even stronger?’ It is incredible.”

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