Donna Strickland

An Eye for Lasers

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Donna Strickland’s work with lasers, specifically chirped pulse amplification, paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by humankind. These help research scientists investigating how forces act with matter at extreme temperature and pressure and are used in laser eye surgery.

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Donna Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1959 to an electrical engineer and a high school English teacher. At school, she quickly viewed science as one of her strengths. With an interest in lasers and electro-optics, she stayed in Canada to study engineering physics at McMaster University, but moved to the United States to complete a PhD from the University of Rochester.

In 1985, Strickland and her PhD supervisor, Gérard Mourou, developed chirped pulse amplification — a way to increase the intensity of a laser without ripping it apart. This would end up leading to the most intense laser pulses ever recorded. Four years later, Strickland obtained her PhD in Optics.

Before settling down at the University of Waterloo in 1997 as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, she was a research associate at the National Research Council of Canada, a physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and a member of the technical staff of Princeton’s Advanced Technology Center for Photonics and Opto-electronic Materials.

On top of these positions, she has served on the board of the Optical Society (OSA) and was its president in 2013. She was also a topical editor for Optics Letters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the OSA. Strickland has also served on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

Her research at the University of Waterloo — where she remains today — deals with developing high-intensity laser systems for nonlinear optics investigations. She is also credited with more than 90 publications.

In 2018, Strickland and Mourou were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Although the applications of their research wasn’t clear at the time of development, chirped pulse amplification has numerous wide-ranging uses, including corrective eye surgery and creating small glass parts for cell phones.

Strickland is the first Canadian woman and the third woman in history to receive this prestigious award, an honour she happily shares with women everywhere. While she is aware of gender inequity in STEM, she has admitted to being surprised that her gender was the biggest takeaway of the ceremony as she views herself as a scientist rather than a woman in science.

Strickland is also the recipient of an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (1998), a Premier’s Research Excellence Award (1999), and a Cottrell Scholar Award (2000).

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