Transcript from an interview with Donna Strickland

Interview with Donna Strickland on 6 December 2018 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

How did you become interested in science?

Donna Strickland: I have been asked that question about how I got interested in science quite a bit. I think it just is my education system. It’s hard to say, I mean, my dad was an engineer and my mother was a high school teacher and so I think education was very big for both of them, so they did take us to things like the Toronto Science Centre and they did take us to these Audubon lectures about birds. And I have to say, it did not spark any interest in birds with me so I don’t know … But not everybody gets raised by parents that are as interested in education and studies that way. But I think it is mostly because in school, I did very well in maths and science. I was one of those kids that thought science class was fun and most people don’t, so, I don’t know why, I just did.

Did you have a teacher that particularly inspired you?

Donna Strickland: In high school I think had very good science teachers. There was Ms Bowman in grade 9 whose husband was a chemistry professor and she would spend her summers in her husband’s lab learning the latest in chemistry. I had her for grade 9 science and she would like to have things exploding in the front of her room and she was wonderful in a lot of ways. I had her again for grade 12 chemistry, and she brought in chocolate bars for us one test I had to miss because I was in the high school band, we were had gone to England during the one test. And she just “Before you start you must have your brain working”, and so she gave each a chocolate bar to get our brain working. But also, I must say, Jim Forsythe, was my physics teacher in grade 13 and I was in his homeroom for the entire five years of high school. So, I sat in the physics room, every morning to start the school day. He also is the one who put me on … I’ve been for twenty years on my high school wall of fame and it was my high school physics teacher that did that for me.

Did your mother have an interest in science too?

Donna Strickland: My mother was raised in a small Canadian farm town, she was raised on a farm. She had an older brother and an older sister. The brother inherited the farm and did not go to university, but the two girls and this was back in the 1940s, were both sent to university. The oldest one had thought about going into medicine but switched into nursing and my mother wanted to go into maths and sciences, that was what she was good at. But before her sister went ahead of her, and my mother got advised that as a female she would find going into the sciences is very hard and that she would be better served by going into the arts. So my mother listened to these people, because coming from a town of one thousand, she just felt overwhelmed about the idea, and so she chose to go then into the arts and then regretted it ever after. And then again, I was raised by a very strong woman who made it clear that she wished she had followed her heart and soul and not listened to everybody else.

When did you first encounter your fellow female Physics Laureates, Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer?

Donna Strickland: I think Marie Curie is just one those icons that you hear about so I can’t possibly tell you when I would have first heard of her. Maria Goeppert Mayer I didn’t even know was a woman when I cited her in my thesis. I just knew of, you know, Goeppert Mayer’s work and it is very funny that I actually said ‘he’ in my thesis, that is how uneducated I am and one of the people reading, the theorist who would help me at the end, he enjoyably stroke it off and said, “Donna, shame on you”.

How has being a woman in science changed over the years?

Donna Strickland: I think since Maria Goeppert Mayer has won that there are many more women in science than when she was there. I think the fact that she didn’t get a paying job as a scientist until, I think, the 1950s, when she did her Nobel Prize winning work, is amazing. So, I have been payed all along. I never had a female professor, not as an undergrad, not as a grad student and now there are six of us, I believe, in my department of 40. So that is still only, you know, 15 percent and it is not as high as it should be, but the fact that there are even six women instead of zero is quite a change. So, I think things are changing for women all the time, certainly. I grew up in the 70s and we were all about women’s lib and I remember being told over and over again: “Women, you can do anything”, so it never entered my mind that I couldn’t.

How can we encourage more women to do science?

Donna Strickland: I think everybody in the world should be told that do what you love and what you think you are good at. I don’t want to really distinguish men from women, I think there are jobs that are stereotypically women jobs and I don’t see any reason that men shouldn’t do those. I don’t think women are more caring than men and yet we hear, you know, so many jobs are for women because they are the more nurturing and I think that’s just as wrong on the other side. So, I think every person should be exposed to every type of field and find out what they are good at and everybody should get to do what they are good at and what they love to do.

What advice would you give to the younger version of you?

Donna Strickland: I feel like I was born under a lucky star and life just worked out for me. Then I will tell other women who ask me this, because people are always wondering when should you have your children, and I said, you should just do everything when it feels right for you. There is no one life plan that works for everybody. Because my husband and I the first year of marriage actually lived biocoastal – so that we both could have good jobs – that got old fast and so I did give up on the academic track and I took a job as a member of technical staff and it turned out that is was perfect for me because I had my two children. I went through my both pregnancies on that job and I was someone who was nauseous all nine months, all day long and I realized that when I got my first teaching job, which was right after my second child was born, I thought I could not have lectured through those two pregnancies. I could have not stood in front of a classroom, I was so ill trough all those two sets of nine months. So, to me, my life just keeps working out. I thought, maybe I was giving up on my carrier, but I hadn’t and someone at the University of Waterloo was willing to hiring me – after four years being out of the academic track. So, this is what I always tell women, you have to do what is right for you at the time is right for you and hope that life works out. I don’t know, maybe I am the only one born under such a lucky star, but my life seems to keep working.

How has your career been impacted by being married to another researcher?

Donna Strickland: I think this is the toughest thing about being a female scientist. I think once we become 50/50 women and men, then it won’t be quite the same. But almost every female scientist is married to a male scientist. Male scientists can’t be married to female scientists, there is not enough of us to go around for them. And so, it does bring in the two-body problem. And most couples have to find jobs together, but many other jobs exist in almost every city whereas science jobs only come up rarely, here, there and everywhere. So, if you want to do the type of science you want to do, you have to be willing to look worldwide and so it is very hard for two scientists to find jobs together. And I must say, my husband followed me to Canada and took a job with industry it’s not, wouldn’t have been his choice either. And so, we each took our turn. As he says he has now been 22 years living in my country, near my family, with me doing the job I want to do and I was only four years in New Jersey, near his family, in his country with him doing the job he wanted to do. So, he kind of keeps asking when it is his turn – for me to go back and follow him.

Why is diversity important in science?

Donna Strickland: I think diversity is a good thing whether you are in science or in anything.  Again, it goes along with not only should every gender be exposed, every person has the right, it shouldn’t be a privilege, it is a right to do what you want to do, and what you are good at and I think, and I’ve said this before, the world works best if we all do what we are good at so that no group of people should ever be discouraged from doing what they are good at- the world works best if we all get our opportunities and we all do it.

How does it feel to be awarded the Nobel Prize for your very first paper?

Donna Strickland: It is unusual that I am winning Nobel Prize for my very first work. I, you know, call it a one hit wonder quite a bit of the time when I give talks and people always want to hear about this one paper rather then my newer work. It’s unusual, most of the time I think supervisors get the credit for the work, and I also think that Gerard Mourou, my supervisor, deserves more credit, maybe, for this prize than I do, because it was his idea. As the student, it’s my job to take the idea and make it a reality and so a lot of work goes into that. People over the years have said that the students should be credited with the fact that though you are given one grand idea, you still have to figure out all the other details to make the idea work. So, everybody should be rewarded, I think possibly, I am one of the people that are getting rewarded as a student because it was as an individual project and so, there were just the two names on the paper as opposed to a large group of names and therefore, when it is a large group of names, one person represents that group and that one person would have to be the supervisor, so …

How did you find your time as a PhD student?

Donna Strickland: When I went to graduate school, I really went with the attitude that I wanted to do one of the world’s best PhD’s. Now, I didn’t think I was unique in that, I would think that every student going for PhD must hope to do one of the world’s great PhD’s. I don’t think anybody goes to do a PhD for society, to say great job. I think there is many other jobs where your parents are telling you to be a doctor, be a lawyer, there are things, at least, in North American culture which are held up on a pedestal and science isn’t one of them. I think, you go in and do a PhD in science because you just love it and want to do it. And if that is why you are doing it, you just want to do the best. So, there was Gerard’s group, or just a group of fabulous students, and we were all there trying to do the best. I think we all urged each other on and we all helped each other but there was also that competitive spirit in all of us and we all knew the other one was working hard, so we must work hard, but as well when anybody struggled we all figured out a way around each person’s struggle so that they could keep moving forward, so it was, even though I am the only one getting credited, it was quite a team effort.

How important is collaboration in science?

Donna Strickland: I think that science is a team sport. I think that you have to talk to somebody else about it. It helps you to form your ideas and it also will spark something, especially if you are in a dead end trying to figure it out, there would always has to be these conversations back and forth. Whether it is from student to supervisor, student to student, student to anybody, from scientist to scientist – it just helps to talk about what you are doing.

Do you enjoy mentoring students?

Donna Strickland: Of course, it’s fun. I particularly like to having students in my group and talking to them and trying get them to see it from their own perspective and get them to the point where they are telling me the new things and that I can learn from them. That is always the goal of every supervisor, to bring your student to the point where they’re letting you know what I should already know, so that’s the joy in it.

Do you have a favourite piece of advice for students?

Donna Strickland: No, I don’t, I don’t think I have one piece of advice to give to a student. I think each of us is unique and each of us sees it from a different point of view and so, what one person needs, another person doesn’t need. I will tell you though, that quite a long time ago, before I even came to Waterloo, there was a student who was to give a talk, a female student, to give a talk. And this female student was particularly nervous and I pointed out, I said, this is one of the challenges that I think women have to overcome, that boys at the time certainly were raised to have bravado, boys are raised to say “Look what I did”. Boys, whether it’s through sport or anything, they are to stand up and almost be beating themselves on the chest saying, “Look how good”. Women are raised to stay quiet and demure and women are raised to not show off. And I was given this advice early on as well, I said: “No, you must learn that to get your PhD you must be able to stand up and give a talk. And if you’re giving the talk about your research you are basically saying ‘Look at me, this is what I did’”. Now, you don’t say it in those words, but this is why it is harder, quite often, for the females to get up and give effective talks because they want to always be so humble about it and they have to get over that.

Is it important for science to be fun?

Donna Strickland: I personally think that, since you spend so many hours a day at work you should, if you have the chance … Unfortunately a lot of people have to work just to get a pay-check, but scientists do not. Scientists are doing it – they could do something else that would make the more money, so I think if you don’t love what you are doing, you are not going to be doing it. That’s all, I think. You can call it fun, you can call it excitement or you can call it enjoyable – I call it fun.

Why do you enjoy science?

Donna Strickland: For me the fun of science is that even though there’s a lot of hard work to get an experiment to happen and then you can spend … The one that I am being awarded for took a year of work to get done. But there is something so exciting about data being shown on a screen or a laser that you have been trying to struggle to make work, finally it works, and you see it. And laser physics is one that you actually see happening. There is all kind of things when you see one colour of light change to another colour of light or what have you that’s exciting to see. And brand-new data that you know you have, and other people don’t have – it’s such an exciting feeling. That’s why, I just think it is fun. And I like building, I have said before, Lego was one of my favourite toys growing up and so building lasers, falls under that category of feeling like a toy, you’re simply playing with a new thing.

What application from your discovery are you most proud of?

Donna Strickland: There was only one commercial application of this laser jet and that is cutting or machining of transparent material, it can be glass used on a cell phone, it can be the cornea of your eye. That’s the one application and I was actually quite surprised that started just 10 years later after the laser was built. It’s usually takes a little bit longer from a research tool in the lab to become an actual product, so I am surprised by that. But I think going forward, the exciting one would be if we can actually get laser acceleration to work. There is a number of people working on laser acceleration, I myself not at this point, but I think if  can start to either compete with the hospital accelerators so it could be used for medicine or even the large CERN – that would be the exciting one I think.

Is it important for scientists to do work that impacts society?

Donna Strickland: No, I don’t feel that the work you do should be directly applicable to society. Again, it falls under my idea that we should all do what we’re good at and I don’t think everyone of us is good in taking an idea out to there or knowing what society should do, but again it goes back to the facts that the scientists have to constantly have dialogues and so it’s a whole train of people. And it doesn’t matter if it is something to be used for society or just an application for whatever. It’s a nonstop continuum people working together. So hopefully there’s other people that are looking at this who want to help society and work back to find the right things.

How did it feel to discover you had been awarded the Nobel Prize?

Donna Strickland: I think it’s a shock, it’s a stunning shock to be woken up to be told that you are Nobel Prize winner. Again, this work was done over thirty years ago so it’s not something that I am living and breathing every day that I did pulse amplification for my PhD all those years ago. No one is expecting, in my position, to win a Nobel Prize. So you get woken up at 5:00 in the morning. My husband is closer to our landline phone that is in our bedroom and so he answered the phone. And certainly, in the middle of the night when you get woken up, it is usually a fear thing, that someone has been hurt. So, I’m saying “What is it, what is it?” and he goes “They’re asking for Professor Strickland”. So, then you kind of know that no time am I called ‘Professor Strickland’, even usually at the university and then this is an important call from Sweden and then you are put on hold, although actually they hung up on me. But I thought I was on hold, I’m hanging on to this call, it’s from Sweden and it’s October 2nd and I think I won the Nobel Prize, this can’t really be true. So that’s all it feels like, this can’t be true.

How did your friends and family react?

Donna Strickland: So many things. My daughter … I texted four people before the press conference and after I’d received the call. I texted my brother, my sister, my son and my daughter. I knew that my brother and sister would get it right away. My sister was in Europe, so would be the daytime and my brother wakes up. I know my two kids were not get it right away and the funniest one was my daughter, who unfortunately had her e-mail hacked in the summer before this, so when she got the text saying, all I said was “I won the Nobel Prize”, she goes, “Oh, mom’s phone had been hacked”. And even her girlfriend called her and said “Congratulations on the Nobel Prize”. And she goes, “No, my mother’s phone has been hacked”. She had to be told it’s in the news, so then she googled, and she was just, she was in tears, screaming at me in the phone call. So that was exciting. I think at my press conference at the university the first day my entire department showed up and the former chair of the department who I was associate chair under, stood up to congratulate me on behalf of all of them. He almost had me in tears because that’s when I really looked, I think I was like a deer caught in the headlights with so many cameras on me. I had never faced such a thing before and when I looked at each face, they were just all beaming at me. It was almost too much.

How has the Nobel Prize affected your life so far?

Donna Strickland: My life got turned upside down with winning the Nobel Prize. I now realise, I don’t think at the time, I realised how reclusive I was and how much I enjoyed spending time all by myself until I found out that was not something possible after winning the Nobel Prize and that all of sudden, people want my autograph and people want to take selfies with me or, you know, like I said everybody in my department, now when they see me, a big smile comes on their face and yet, it’s like really ‘cause you have known me for so many years’. So things are very different for me, I kind of hope they go back to just that normal way. I don’t think people can live on this height of excitement for very long, but it has been quite different for the last two months.

What qualities are needed to be a successful scientist?

Donna Strickland: A scientist needs, first curiosity, they need to be excited about trying to learn something different. They have to be able to communicate well to be a good scientist, because you do have to talk back and forth so that you get these new ideas. I think an experimental physicist needs incredibly patience. And so, some students try it for a while and realise they simply don’t have the patience to do that kind of work and then of course things break, and you have to start again, and it can lead to a lot of frustration. So, you have to have that kind of patience, but again, if it’s work you enjoy it is not as hard as it is although frustration is still hard to deal with.

How do you deal with scientific challenges?

Donna Strickland: I’m somebody who knows what I am trying to get to at the end of my project, so it doesn’t matter how many hurdles get thrown in. Soon it’s another hurdle one must figure its way around, it but that is a job of a scientist. Usually the hurdles are a technical challenge or a scientific obstacle that you weren’t expecting, but the that is was science is about. If you already knew how everything worked, you wouldn’t have to do the project to start with. So, each one is a new puzzle and you have to … To me I just think of it like a puzzle rather than a problem, but then I also like to work on projects that not very many people are working on rather than being part of the race. So, this is why I have not worked on chirped pulse amplification (CPA) as much. I have two assistants in my lab, but I look for projects that I find really fun to do, but the whole rest of the world aren’t necessarily doing them, so I don’t ever feel that I am in a time race.

Can you explain your Nobel Prize-awarded discovery in 30 seconds or less?

Donna Strickland: In 30 seconds might be very hard. This is a way to make sure that you can have very intense pulses and the idea is like, I call it, a laser hammer and that if you can push on a nail with all your might it won’t go into a piece of wood, but if you hit it with a hammer quickly it goes in. And this is the idea that we can we make our laser pulse both energetic and short, but we didn’t have the hammer inside the laser destroying the laser, which was why it never worked before. But we can do it in a way that the laser was fine and then make the pulse short after amplification so that could be like a laser hammer.

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