Donna Theo Strickland was born on May 27, 1959, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She studied engineering physics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and optics at the University of Rochester in the United States. She earned her doctorate in optics in 1989. Her PhD supervisor was Gérard Mourou, future Nobel Laureate. She worked at the National Research Council, and then lived in the United States where she worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Princeton University. She has been affiliated with the University of Waterloo in Canada since 1997. Donna Strickland is married with two children.
Professor Strickland developed chirped pulse amplification (CPA) with Gérard Mourou, her doctoral supervisor while at the University of Rochester. CPA enables the most intense laser pulses ever and the research has led to tools with applications in medicine, industry, science, the military and security.
On the day I was born, my father marked the day by buying a copy of a newspaper. He performed this same ritual to mark the birth of each of his three children. My mother was a very organized person and kept all of my mementos. Near the end of her life, when she sold the family home, she gave me her collection of my childhood memorabilia. This newspaper was preserved in a plastic bag. Along with it was a note from my mother, pointing out an article that she thought I would now find particularly interesting.
It was a piece on the first female engineering graduate from the University of Toronto. She was the only woman in a graduating class of 450. The accompanying photo shows her seated, holding a bouquet of roses, and surrounded by several of her male classmates. It looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe’s number Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The men are all looking at her adoringly and each is holding up a glass. According to the article, they were toasting their queen. The story describes her as a girl, a maid and, as I say, a queen. Not once was she called a woman.
Back then, my home town had a population of less than 40,000 people. Guelph’s most notable former resident is John McCrae, the field surgeon in World War I who penned the poem In Flanders Fields. It’s also known as the Royal City, Guelph being the surname of several royals, including George IV, the king at the time the city got its name.
My mother trained as a teacher but was a homemaker when I was a child. My father was an electrical engineer. I’m the second of their three children, appearing between my older sister Anne and my younger brother Rob. I would say that we had the stereotypical good, middle-class life. I was a daddy’s girl. When I was young, I was always climbing up on my dad’s lap, like in the family photo. I was always asking him to read my favourite story, Molly Whuppie. It is an English fairy tale about three sisters having to fend for themselves. Molly was the youngest, but she used her wits and her gumption to save all three of them from the horrible giant. My dad always asked, “Again? Can’t you pick a different story?” But he always read me Molly Whuppie. He started calling me Molly Whuppie, which got shortened to Whup and that is what he always called me from then on. My dad was an avid newspaper reader, reading it from cover to cover, including the comics. He liked the comic Cathy, because she reminded him of me. I have several of the Cathy strips that he cut out of the papers. They are about the dad just wanting Cathy to be happy and Cathy mostly wanting to be an independent woman, more interested in a career than settling down and starting a family.
I have always loved going to school. I was one of those rare kids who was happy to have summer vacation over so I could go back to school. I started this love affair with school at Victory Public School. I met my new best friend, Susan, in Grade 1. We went all through school together, including skipping Grade 3 together. We went onto Willow Road School for Grades 7 and 8 and then Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, GCVI, for Grades 9 through 13. In the earliest grades, I excelled at reading, but as I got older, math and science became my favourite subjects. I would say writing was what I found hardest to do, so I shied away from subjects like history. In high school, when I made a comment to my friends about how I was glad I was done having to take any more history and geography courses, the teacher overheard and asked what courses I wanted to take. When I responded that I wanted to take math and physics, she told me that they were boys’ subjects. I could not believe she would say such a thing. I had never once thought there were girls’ and boys’ subjects. Most of the top math students in my year were girls and none of my classmates thought that was odd. There were boys in the class who were excellent at writing essays and stories and I certainly didn’t think that was strange. This was the 1970s and women’s lib was all the rage. We girls were told we could do anything we wanted, and I believed it.
Education was important to both of my parents. My father’s father had grown up in a small fishing village in Newfoundland and had no formal education. He learned to read and do math after he retired. Both of his sons went to university, which was rare coming from a small town on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. My mother grew up on a farm outside a small village in Ontario. Her brother took over the family farm, while my aunt and my mother went off to university. Again, this was rare for girls from small villages to go off to university. Growing up, our parents never said to any of their children, “if you go to university.” It was always, “when you go to university.” So, the three of us understood from a very young age that we would be well educated. We went on many family car trips, mostly down east to see the Strickland family, in Cape Breton. My mother would bring along a large binder to share facts and history about the places we would see. We went to museums, historical sites and toured mines. My mother liked to tell the story of one family trip to the science centre about an hour from our home. As my mom told the story, when my dad was looking at one of the displays, he called me over to him and said I am going to want to see this because this is the future. It was a laser. So according to Strickland family lore, it was my father who introduced me to what would eventually become my life’s work.
I was incredibly shy in high school. I had a few very close friends, but I wasn’t very well known in the high school. I remember one day when I was asked if I was Edith’s daughter, followed by someone else asking if I was Rob’s sister and finally someone else wondered if I was Anne’s sister. I didn’t seem to be known by anyone as me. Even though I enjoyed math and physics I always felt it made me seem very nerdy to the other students. I remember when I won the school’s prize for the highest mark in Grade 11 physics, I dreaded going up on stage to receive the award. I thought it would label me a supreme nerd. It turned out to be a learning moment for me. The other kids were wonderful about it and said things like it must be nice to be so smart. While at high school I enjoyed being in the school band, even though I really couldn’t play the clarinet. I also enjoyed the outers club, which went on camping trips. The rest of my family didn’t really like to rough it, but I enjoyed camping. Winter camping was my favourite because you didn’t have to deal with the millions of mosquitoes that were present in the spring, or spiders in the tent.
While I was in high school, my dad received a diagnosis of terminal spinal cancer and was told he only had a year to live. I was spared from knowing this devastating news at the time. My mother realized that she would have to be the breadwinner for the family. She felt very fortunate when a teaching vacancy opened up at the high school where she had taught before getting married. This high school was my high school, so we were both at GCVI when I was in Grades 12 and 13. My father was not a quitter. He researched his own disease and asked his doctor about a new radiation treatment he’d read about. The physician wasn’t optimistic, but my dad wanted to try it. He was one of the lucky ones and the radiation therapy worked. My mom kept her teaching job, since it would be a few years before they would know if the remission was permanent. We had my dad for another two decades.
With my mother’s paycheque, my parents were able to afford a cottage on Lake Huron after my father sold the family home that he had inherited in Cape Breton. The family has enjoyed many summer weekends together up at the cottage ever since. You can see the family photo taken there in 1985, the year I published the paper that earned me a Nobel Prize.
So many times in my life I heard my mother talk about how she wished she had gone into science or mathematics. She was always sure that she would have found university easier taking the subjects that she had been very good at while in high school. People discouraged her when she was young because they felt women just didn’t go into those disciplines. I think hearing her story of regret made me determined to pick a career in a field I was good at and enjoyed, regardless of what others thought or said. I was very clear in my own head about where my strengths were and what I wanted to do.
I would like to acknowledge my homeroom teacher, Jim Forsyth, who was also my physics teacher in Grade 13. When I returned to Canada as a faculty member at the University of Waterloo, he read that I had developed chirped pulse amplification. He contacted me through my mother asking if I would be willing to be placed on GCVI’s wall of fame. I wasn’t sure that I belonged on this wall that included John McCrae. Jim said that he wanted to have a female scientist on the wall as a role model for the female students. I agreed to his request and he made it happen. I have been on GCVI’s wall of fame for two decades for the development of CPA. They recently have rewritten the citation to say that I have received the Nobel Prize for CPA. Now it doesn’t seem so strange for me to be on GCVI’s wall of fame.
I decided that when it came time to pick a university, I would go where my closest friends were not going. My best friend was going to take engineering at the University of Waterloo, where I teach physics today. My sister was already there. I knew if I went there, I’d stick with them and continue as I had been. I wanted to get over my shyness, and going away would force me to meet people and stand on my own.
While deciding what to take at university I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to pursue engineering like my father and my sister or if I should take physics, which I thought would be more fun. I looked over the course calendars of all the Ontario universities and I found that McMaster University had an engineering physics program. I decided that program would let me walk the line between engineering and physics. When I saw that one of the engineering physics programs was about lasers and electro-optics, I just thought what fun it must be to study lasers. That clinched it for me and off to McMaster I went. I made wonderful new friends at MAC. My first-year roommate, along with another pair of roommates from down the hall in the first-year residence, recently took a trip to Nashville together to celebrate turning 60. I was actually only turning 59, but I didn’t let that stop me from joining the birthday bash. It was this same group of girlfriends who helped me shop for the gowns and dresses I needed for Nobel Week. I graduated from McMaster in 1981 with a Bachelor of Engineering degree. Unlike the woman who had graduated in 1959, I was not the only woman in engineering, and in fact there were three women who graduated in the discipline of engineering physics that year.
Even as a child, I knew I belonged in school and decided I would get a PhD, since I was told that was the ultimate in education. Towards this goal of going to graduate school, I took a research job at McMaster the summer after second year. I worked in the laser group supervised by Brian Garside. I had two different research projects in two different labs. The labs in the subbasement of Burke Sciences Building were undergoing renovations and the air conditioning had been turned off. This was a very hot summer and the men were working with their shirts off. I didn’t see that I wanted to do this too, so I decided that I would spend most of my time on the other project in another building. I was to try to melt germanium onto gallium arsenide to make a p-n junction to be a fast optical detector. I had to clean out an old evaporator, including cleaning and fixing a diffusion pump. It took me most of the summer, but I did get to try to make one sample. To test it I had to silver paint some electrical connections to it. I have shaky hands and the small test sample flew out of my tweezers onto the floor littered with solder drops that all looked the same as my device. I was down on my hands and knees looking for it when one grad student came in and asked what I was doing. He got down on the floor with me and started looking. One by one as the men came in and asked what we were doing they each got down on the floor with us and looked. We found it! I wondered if the guys would do this for any summer student or did it help my cause that I was the only woman in the group. I remain very good friends with the grad students I worked with that summer.
Unfortunately, when I finally tested my device, it was not a diode and my summer project was a bust. Luckily, I had impressed my supervisor anyway and he was willing to write me good references for my next summer job and for grad school. The summer after third year, I worked at the National Research Council in Ottawa with John Rolfe. That year my project was investigating polishing fiber bundles. The group needed a way to get light down a cryostat that did not have windows. I don’t remember being much more successful that summer than I had been the previous summer. I made many fiber bundles, but I don’t remember ever getting to shine light through any of them to see if they worked.
I knew I wanted to keep working with lasers and I asked the grad students where I should go. I was advised by one to consider the two optics schools in the United States: The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, or the University of Arizona Optical Sciences Center. I didn’t get through the foreign student admissions at Arizona, but Rochester accepted me and off I went. During my first week at the Institute of Optics, I met a Canadian graduate student who offered to show me around the campus. When he learned that I was interested in working with lasers, he introduced me to Gérard Mourou at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. I went into his ultrafast laser lab that had a red dye laser pumped by a green laser beam and I thought what fun it would be to work on such lasers. They reminded me of a Christmas tree and Christmas is my favourite time of year. Gérard was not a professor at the time and so he became my research supervisor. By the time I was in third year, the institute realized that so many students wanted to work with him, that he should be a professor and so I became one of Gerard’s first PhD students. He is also the person with whom I now share half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.
While working in Gérard’s group I met my future husband Doug Dykaar. He was a graduate student in electrical engineering. The group he worked with used the ultrafast lasers in Gérard’s lab. As Doug describes our first meeting – the lights were off, except for the flashlamps that pumped the infrared lasers – anyone else would think it was romantic. Optics labs are often dark to help us see the laser beams. Doug and I became good friends one week when we worked together to the wee hours of the night on a project about electro-optic sampling with infrared light. We used my laser with Doug’s electro-optic sampling apparatus. Doug and I share a fondness for dessert and a great new dessert place had opened up near the lab. We quite often took a break in the afternoon and went and ate cake together. We didn’t actually start dating until five years after that first meeting, but we think the group thought we were dating long before that.
Gérard gave me a theoretical paper by Stephen Harris of Stanford University. It was about high order harmonic generation that could yield coherent radiation out in the extreme ultraviolet. Lasers do not work at these high frequencies. I decided that it looked like a good PhD project for me to work on. To make it happen, we would need a more intense laser than Gérard’s group had at the time. At first, I tried pulse compression of a high energy laser, but it didn’t work. At the time, it wasn’t possible to increase the intensity of the beams without damaging the laser itself. Gérard came up with a new idea that we now call chirped pulse amplification, CPA for short. The simple idea that Gérard came up with was to stretch the pulse by chirping it. That means the frequency changes through our laser pulse. In a bird’s chirp, the sound frequency changes in time through the note. It was the stretched, chirped pulse that we would amplify.
It took me about a year to build the amplification system. To get a lot of energy into a short pulse, we needed to first stretch it to make it a long pulse, amplify the long pulse and then compress it. I want to thank Marcel Bouvier for helping me with this project. Gérard had managed to get an old laser amplifier that I could use for the project. The electronics needed to be fixed and Marcel was the electronics engineer for the group. Marcel had also developed a new type of Pockel cell driver for the lasers in the group. I used one of these Pockel cells in the regenerative amplifier I built for the CPA system. Marcel went on to start a company to sell these Pockel cells, and I still use one of his Medox Pockel cells to this day in my lab at Waterloo. I also want to thank my friend and colleague Steve Williamson. I did not have any way to measure the duration of the amplified compressed pulses. Steve had a streak camera that would work. He brought his streak camera into the lab one night and together we measured the pulse duration. CPA worked. The amplification process did not distort the pulse chirp and we had a short intense laser pulse.
To answer a commonly asked question, I never wondered at the time if I would be awarded a Nobel Prize for this. I was just trying to do one of the world’s best PhDs. That was my goal. We were quick to publish our results. We wanted to be sure we were first, so submitted to Optics Communications, a journal with a relatively quick turnaround. When I finished writing, the article came to only three pages in length. I simply wanted to state the idea, explain the laser details and give the data. Compression of Amplified Chirped Optical Pulses by Strickland and Mourou came out December 1, 1985. It was my first published paper. It was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 33 years later. At the time we received the award, the paper had more than 4,000 Google citations, with about 200 new ones per year. I would like to note that during the first few years after publication, it wasn’t that highly cited. Large laser systems take time to develop and were done mostly at the large labs. CPA didn’t really become mainstream until titanium doped sapphire was developed. This allowed academic researchers with small labs to build CPA systems. Then the field took off.
CPA formed the basis of my PhD, but I had to do a scientific study with it for my PhD. The high harmonic generation was going to be too difficult to finish in time. For a six-month sabbatical, See Leang Chin from Université Laval in Quebec came to Rochester to study multi-photon ionization with the CPA laser. Gérard agreed that I could work with See Leang on the ionization studies for my thesis. In the end, there was a group of us working on this project that included a new student, Steve Augst, a new professor David Meyerhofer and a theorist Joe Eberly, who was a professor in both physics and optics.
Long before finishing my PhD, I knew that I wanted to be Paul Corkum’s second post-doctoral fellow. His first post-doc had been a grad student at McMaster when I was an undergrad with the group. Paul worked in the laser and plasma section of the physics division of the National Research Council in Ottawa. Paul was already considered to be Canada’s leading expert in ultrafast optics. Now he is renowned for his development of the new field of attosecond science, but he didn’t get to that until after I worked with him. I took so long to get my PhD that I almost lost the opportunity to work with Paul. He called me in January 1988 and told me that if I could promise to be done by the end of the summer, he would hold the job for me. I was so happy when See Leang showed up and suggested that we all work together on multi-photon ionization. That helped me keep my promise and I was able to join Paul’s group in September 1988. Technically I did not graduate with my PhD from Rochester until February 1989. With Paul, I worked on the link between continuum generation and self-focusing. I still find continuum generation to be like magic seeing all the colours appear out of nothing, even though I helped discover why all the colours were generated. After that we worked on Coulomb imaging of iodine. It was a wonderful three years. I tell everyone that doing a post-doc is the best. You get to do research full time. While at grad school, you are busy doing classes and worried about things like qualifying exams. As a professor, you are the one responsible for finding the money to do the research, while also teaching and doing committee work. As a post-doc, you have only one responsibility and that is to have fun doing research.
Doug and I were married in 1991 right after I finished my post-doc. After leaving Rochester, Doug was lucky enough to have found a job he loved working at Bell Labs in New Jersey. I wanted to find a science job in New Jersey so I could live with my husband, but I didn’t manage to find one. I took a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where I again worked on developing new CPA lasers and also using the 10TW CPA laser that they had in the group to finally study high harmonic generation. My supervisor at Livermore was Mike Perry. I worked on developing CPA in chromium doped LiSAF with Todd Ditmire, a fantastic young grad student. Todd went on to build the second Petawatt CPA laser as a young faculty member at the University of Texas. I worked with John Crane on the harmonic generation.
I had a fun year at Livermore, but I wanted to live with my husband and working at a lab in the United States as a non-citizen is difficult. Since Doug had a dream job, I kept looking for a new job in New Jersey. I took a job as a member of technical staff at Princeton University’s Photonics and Electro-Optic Materials Center. I worked with Warren S. Warren there and Stephen Forrest, who was the director of the center. It turned out to be a blessing that I had this position. I went through both of my pregnancies while on this job. Pregnancy made me nauseous morning, afternoon and night. I would have found it hard to teach as a faculty member during this time. I somehow managed to get my job done even though I did spend quite a bit of time in the sick room.
Doug and I have two children, Adam and Hannah. They are both adults now and the best of friends, despite being quite different in their temperament and interests. They have always been close, ever since they were tiny children. Doug and I always encouraged them to follow their interests so long as they are doing what makes them happy and that plays to their strengths. Hannah seems to be following in her parents’ footsteps. She is currently a grad student studying astrophysics. Adam has taken his own route and is studying comedy writing and performance.
Doug and I continued to both look for academic jobs. The University of Waterloo was the first university that offered me a job. I started there in 1997. Since I had followed Doug to New Jersey, he agreed to follow me to Waterloo. He took a job in industry. I set up an ultrafast laser group. Teaching is rewarding and I enjoy sharing my excitement about physics with budding scientists. In addition to teaching and conducting research, I believe strongly in serving the scientific community. Among my professional activities, I was president of the Optical Society of America (OSA), and was on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicists as the director of Academic Affairs.
The early-morning call from Sweden on October 2, 2018, changed my life. I am grateful that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognized my work and I feel so honoured to be among the many eminent scientists I join as a Nobel Laureate. With one phone call my work is out in the world more than ever before, my name is mentioned in the same breath as trailblazers Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer, and I have had dinner with royalty. I will use the platform the Nobel Prize affords me to continue to advocate on behalf of science and the many scientists who devote their lives to probing the fundamental questions.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
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