Canadian physicist who won Nobel Prize touts science for the sake of science

Donna Strickland, 59, said securing the field’s highest honour has given her a significant new platform

Winning a Nobel Prize changed nearly everything about Donna Strickland’s professional life except the principles that helped shape it in the first place.

The University of Waterloo professor has watched enrolment in her courses double, landed a promotion at work and begun scheduling global lectures in the two months since she became the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in physics.

Strickland, 59, said securing the field’s highest honour has given her a significant new platform from which to share the importance of pursuing science for the sake of understanding how the world works rather than to achieve specific technological breakthroughs.

“Science first needs to be done for the sake of science,” Strickland said in a teleconference from Stockholm, Sweden where she accepted her award. “Then later on you have more scientific knowledge that can be applied to new technologies.”

Strickland said her own Nobel-winning research exemplifies the ways that answering fundamental questions about science can eventually lead to game-changing, practical applications.

Strickland split one half of this year’s Nobel physics prize with French scientist Gerard Mourou, who served as her PH.D adviser in the early 1980s.

Together the two discovered Chirped Pulse Amplification, a technique that underpins today’s short-pulse, high-intensity lasers and became the crucial component to corrective eye surgery.

READ MORE: Canadian physicist collects Nobel Prize

Strickland said she and Mourou were initially motivated by a desire to understand more about how light interacts with matter, adding the specific applications came only once the research was completed.

Strickland and Mourou both collected their shares of the US$1.01-million award on Monday, part of a whirlwind week in which laureates juggle a jam-packed schedule between moments in the lap of luxury. The other half of the Nobel prize went to Arthur Ashkin of the United States, who was the third winner of the award.

Strickland said she’s been revelling in the accommodations at the “magnificent” five-star hotel she’s been occupying since she arrived in Sweden on Dec. 5.

The 11-day trip has seen her both give lectures and hobnob with royalty, she said, describing a post-ceremony dinner with King Carl XVI Gustaf and his family as a fun and enjoyable night.

She even discovered the downside of having a driver and personal attache on hand to cater to her needs, saying their attentiveness made her complacent and resulted in her forgetting tickets to the prize ceremony for both herself and her husband.

“Once people start looking after you, I quit thinking about any details,” she said with a laugh.

Reality will set back in after Strickland returns to Canada. Strickland, who applied for and received full professorship at Waterloo after her Nobel win, said she plans to teach as much as possible while juggling an increasingly hectic schedule of lectures around the world.

Enrolment in her classes has doubled since she was named a Nobel laureate in October, she added.

Strickland said her newfound fame has brought her research before a wider audience, forcing her to learn new ways of communicating the complexities behind her award-winning work in order to connect with those without an extensive science background.

But she said her numerous new speaking engagements, already scheduled into 2020, will explore new territory as well.

Prior to winning the Nobel Prize Strickland said she had developed an interest in how photonics, or the study of light, can be used for environmental measurement and monitoring.

Her win, she said, has given her more of a “political voice” to help educate governments on potentially helpful scientific tools.

“Every country needs to be monitoring their environment now,” she said. “We think photonics has a really big role to play for that.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ellis Ross (left), BC Liberal party, celebrated with his wife, Tracey after being named the preliminary winner of the 2020 snap provincial election. (Cameron Ehl photo)
Ross named preliminary winner of snap election

BC Liberals’ Ellis Ross named the re-elected MLA for Skeena riding

Voting has officially closed throughout B.C. for the 2020 snap provincial election. (Clare Rayment)
Map of Skeena polling stations

Watch the updates on the map below as polling stations are counted throughout Skeena riding

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Most Read