The work of women scientists is often too little known and publicized. They fail to get the proper credit, unlike their male colleagues. The story of the Canadian physicist Donna Strickland is a flagrant example.
Ms. Strickland was unknown to the general public until autumn 2018, when a prestigious award would suddenly make a difference.
A call that changes everything
Early in the morning of October 2, 2018, Donna received a telephone call that would radically change her life. At the other end of the line, a representative of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences informed her that she was being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with France’s Gérard Mourou and the American Arthur Ashkin.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Donna and Gérard for developing the most intense lasers ever built. Their work resulted in tools with applications in medicine, in physics and in numerous other fields.
Donna Strickland was only the third woman – and the first Canadian woman! – to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics.
At that moment, those in charge of the Wikipedia encyclopedia, who had declined to create a page in her name, hustled to devote one to Ms. Strickland!
A gift for science
As a girl, Donna always enjoyed going to school. In high school her favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. One of her history teachers told her one day that they were subjects for boys. Donna was surprised by the remark, not being able to believe that there were subjects for boys and others for girls.
Her mother had suffered from the same remarks when she was young. She’d wanted to study science, but those around her talked her out of it. And so she became a teacher.
For her parents, education was important. They encouraged their three children to pursue university degrees. Donna hesitated between engineering and physics, finally enrolling in engineering physics at McMaster University, in Ontario. She earned her bachelor’s there in 1981.
A passion for lasers
It was during her summer jobs that Donna started to take an interest in lasers.
That area of physics enthralled her. So she enrolled for a doctorate at the University of Rochester in the United States in order to specialize in it. There she met the physicist Gérard Mourou, who headed an ultrafast-laser laboratory.
During her doctoral studies, Donna met Doug Dykaar, a graduate in electrical engineering who was using the lasers from Mourou’s group. After five years of working together in the lab, the two scientists decided to go out together.
In the late 1980s, Doug landed a dream job with Bell Labs in New Jersey. After a year of work in California, Donna rejoined Doug in New Jersey, where she would take a position at Princeton University. They would marry in 1991, and have two children.
A crucial article
Her first scientific article setting out her doctoral work on ultrafast lasers was published on December 1, 1985. It was this work that would be recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018.
At the time of the awarding of that Nobel Prize in 2018, over 4,000 citations on Google pointed to Donna Strickland’s scientific article. Nevertheless, Wikipedia had refused to create a page on Donna, claiming lack of renown. Since that controversy, the encyclopedia has reviewed its criteria in order to allow better recognition of the work of women and people belonging to minorities.
The physics and astronomy department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario offered Donna an assistant professorship in 1997. This time it was Doug who followed Donna to Waterloo.
Donna would not be promoted to full professor until 2018, after winning the Nobel Prize.
Since 2018, Donna Strickland has been the recipient of many rewards and considerable recognition. In 2019, for example, she was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada. The following year she became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. as well as a fellow of the Royal Society in London, in the United Kingdom. She has also received numerous honorary doctorates.
Many women scientists are unfortunately unknown to the general public, despite important discoveries. Learn more about some of them:
- Mary Jackson, a pioneer who opened the doors to space, despite segregation
- Vera Cooper Rubin, the woman who discovered the dark side of the Universe
- Lise Meitner, who helped unlock the secrets of the nucleus of atoms
- Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who enabled NASA to travel to space
- Susan Jocelyn Bell, the overlooked Nobel Prize winner
Don't miss the nobELLES exhibition
presented at the Planetarium from April 27, 2023