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Listen: Nobel laureate Donna Strickland talks lasers and gender

The third-ever woman to win a physics Nobel tells Nature about her work and the under-representation of women.

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Donna Strickland is the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 55 years.

Reporter Elizabeth Gibney talks to her about what life is like for a recent Nobel Prize winner and about what Strickland thinks about the fact that so few women win the prize.

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TRANSCRIPT

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

So first off, congratulations!

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Thanks very much.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

I understand that if we take you back to last Tuesday, the call from Stockholm was something of a surprise?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Of course, it was a total surprise, yes. And it was also 5 in the morning, so…

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And the research that you won for was done in 1985, while you were a PhD student experimenting with lasers. What was it that you were trying to achieve at the time?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

My PhD project was actually doing something that required a high-intensity laser. It was supposed to work in a way that many, many photons of light would interact with an atom all at the same time. And to do that you need to have all of your photons squeezed into small volume and that means you focus it with the lens down and you also squeeze in time. And so that’s what we were trying to do, but unfortunately, if you do that inside your laser it blows up. And so the idea came around to say okay, what we have to do is not squeeze all the pulses first, stretch them out so that it’s over a great big volume, amplify it up and then when we have all of the photons in the great big volume, you can squeeze it back down to a small volume, and now you have a really intense source of light.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And why is it that you wanted to improve the intensity of the lasers?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Well we wanted to interact with atoms in new ways and this type of laser can now have a force on an electron that’s bigger than the force that holds the electron to the atom. And also, it can be done very shortly and so the electrons simply fly off the atoms when they’re inside these laser fields.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

So, if they’re a greater intensity that’s useful both in physics but also for applications including corrective laser eye surgery?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

So, when people get this corrective surgery, people would actually scalpel off the outside part of the cornea, and then they would use the UV laser to reshape the cornea into new shape so that you could see and then put the flap back. What the ultrafast laser does is that because it doesn’t have to just cut from the surface, it’s only at the intense focal point that it does this damage where the electrons come off the atoms, you could actually put your laser and scan it over your cornea and it would cut underneath that. Instead of using a metal scalpel you can use a laser.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Sounds like a much less painful process.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

That’s right, and it can be very precise with the laser.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Now, I wish we didn’t have to talk about gender. I’m sure that’s a topic that you’ve spoken about a lot this week, but as you’ll be very well aware, you know, you’re of course just the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. I guess first off, do you think that women are currently underrepresented among the Nobel laureates?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Well, 3 in 100 years or something - I think there are a higher percentage of women doing fantastic science than that, so probably we are underrepresented by the Nobel Prize, yes.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Lots of people have asked you about being a woman in physics, and I think that you said so far that you have always been treated fairly and paid well.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Actually, the University of Waterloo is always very careful. At one point, I got this letter, you know, saying that, “We look into making sure that women are paid equal but we realised…” And then a whole long line at the very end was, “And you were being treated equal so you won’t get a raise.” And I went well too bad because I would have liked the raise but at least I’m being treated equal! So that’s the way it is.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Well that’s really good to know. And much has also been made of the fact that you are an associate professor rather than a professor, and I think you’d said that you’d never applied, is that right?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Yeah, now I really wish I just had. I had colleagues that were saying, “Why aren’t you applying, you should be applying.” And I sort of just said, “Okay, I’ll probably do it next year.”

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And to get a bit meta, obviously, you know I started these few questions by apologising for asking you about the very fact that you’re a woman. How has it felt over the past few days answering so many questions on that topic?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I do hope that we do get to the point, we all hope we get to the point where this just becomes not discussed anymore. I mean, so hopefully soon there’s enough women and enough people of colour and enough of every group out there that feels that they get the recognition they deserve, and then we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Any suggestions on how we can reach that point, either what advice to younger scientists or even to the Nobels as to how to make the system work better?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I think we’ve been pushing for a lot of years and I do feel like women’s lib was talked about a lot in the 70s and I certainly always felt that, you know, as a woman, I could do whatever the heck I wanted. You know, and maybe a lot of women who felt that got out there and did it and maybe we let it slide again. Certainly, this is a moment in history where women around the world aren’t letting much slide anymore, so I think things are changing again, fairly quickly again. Question is whether we can consistently keep moving forward until it’s all done.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And Donna, you now have an incredible platform from which to speak, being a Nobel laureate. How do you plan to use that?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I don’t know! It’s kind of a scary kind of thing because I am somebody who just talks a lot without thinking and people have been quoting me back and I think did I actually say that? So that’s got me a little scared. I will have to practice not just saying the first thing that comes into my mind.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And how has your life changed since becoming a Nobel laureate on Tuesday?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Oh, completely! This is just completely crazy and you know, I got to talk to the Prime Minister of Canada for the first time ever and he was very nice about it because I said, “This is like your life all the time.” And he said, “No, I don’t always get to speak to a Nobel laureate.”

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Wow, well enjoy it! It sounds like it’s hectic but congratulations again.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Thank you very much.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06995-w
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