INTERVIEW - 'We need more women in physics even with men in winning Nobel Prize': Nobel laureate Donna Strickland

Ashraf Amin , Monday 8 Jul 2024

Professor Donna Strickland, the third woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, spoke to Ahram Online about the applications of her research, the current challenges she faces, and why she is advocating for fundamental research studies.

Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland
Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland


Along with her professor Gerard Mourou, the Canadian laureate was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2018 for their ground-breaking inventions in the field of laser and their new method of generating chirped pulse amplification techniques that proved useful in a wide range of medical and industrial fields.

AO: What are your research applications that you are most proud of?

DS: I remember the first time I saw a chirped pulse amplification (CPA) laser apparatus for sale. I could not believe that I had something to do with it. I was proud the first time I heard about using that technology for Lasik eye surgery. I am also excited that the big CPA apparatus could make stars on Earth and study the strong magnetic and electric fields of stars and supernovas.

AO: Why didn't you do the Lasik eye operation yourself?

DS: I am very squeamish and I am happy wearing glasses. I will never do a biomedical procedure on myself.

AO: What are the next big challenges in your research area that you wish to solve in the coming years?

DS: The dream has been that we will be able to produce a super high-intense laser beam at 10 to the power of 29 watts per cm square. That will open several possible applications like studying cosmological processes in the lab, and many medical therapies.

The challenge is that we plateaued at 10 to the power 23. What is currently missing is a lot of technology and clever ideas to solve the research problems. If those are solved, it will be time for a new Nobel Prize-winning discovery to kick us up.  

AO: You and Prof Anne L’Huillier have negative responses whenever you are addressed as the few women physicists who won the Nobel Prize. What is needed to stop bringing up this subject? 

DS: Obviously, we need more women in physics and winning the Nobel Prize to stop bringing such questions.

When Anne and I were being physics grad schools, women's representation was only 4 percent; now it is probably 20 percent. The question was if women's representation was 4 percent, why did not we have the same percentage among the winners of the Nobel Prize? I think that by time as more women are interested in physics, we may see more winners of the Nobel Prize, even with men.    

AO: Who inspired you to venture into the world of physics?

DS: No one. I was only good at math and physics; nobody motivated me. It was clear what I was meant to do. Even my teachers knew that I would have a career in physics. I just knew where I belonged and my choices were between math and physics.

AO: After winning the Nobel Prize, you said you would advocate on behalf of scientists and science to probe fundamental questions. Why is this a priority for you?

DS: I believe you cannot only research to solve societal problems. We should support fundamental science that leads us in 20 years to new ideas and new ways to solve our problems.

To reach that level, we should have a chain that includes research institutes, the government, and the private sector, all working together to push fundamental research forward.

It goes along with the idea when people say I did something special. I did not really. I am one gauge on a wheel. I would not have invented the chirped pulse amplification (CPA) technique without the invention of Laser or Titanium Sapphire. Who knew that eye surgery would come from my research in intense laser beams?

AO: How can low- and middle-income countries implement this vision within their economic challenges and limited budget?

DS: I always bring the example of South Korea. At the end of their war, they were a poor country. They decided to put their eggs in the science basket. It was not about fixing their economy and society in the next decade. They had a long-term vision, and here they are after 70 years.

Their GDP per capita jumped from $67 in 1953 to $34,000 in 2023. You have to start and understand that science is a way out of poverty and improving societies. This should take the will of a whole country.

I see that East Asian countries believe in science. If you also look at the examples of science policies in Denmark and Germany, they have got industry, academia, and the government to work together, not one telling the others what to do.

AO: How do you see the impact of artificial intelligence on academia?

DS: I do not use AI in my research, but I think it can be useful in writing the introduction and the literature review so that the scientists focus on the experiments and writing the new part of their study.

The paper that I am famous for was only three pages long. I was focusing on my findings and being the first to publish. AI can also be of help in research as long as everybody understands that it is a tool to analyze the data not to make it.

AO: How far do you think you influenced your children?

DS: I have a daughter who is an astrophysicist and recently got her first postdoc position.

My son is a comedy writer and he went back to undergrad to study English literature because it is hard to make a living as a comedian.

For sure, my daughter when she was studying physics asked me for more help than my son when he was studying comedy writing. What I like about my son and comedy is that we went to see his final exams and he was doing stand-up comedy.

I do not go to see my daughter in her final exams in physics even if I want to. So, I think I have influenced my daughter a bit in choosing her career, while my son and I both have different senses of humour and he thinks I am not funny.

AO: What advice do you give young researchers who are starting their careers?

DS: My advice is whatever you are doing, you should find it fun. That will help you to put the effort into it day after day. I knew that my skill was between physics and math. I could not switch to business; money does not interest me. I knew what was meant for me.

Nevertheless, research can be frustrating, which is why it is important when you go through such moments to remind yourself that in the end, this is still the most fun thing for you to do. 

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