Skip to main content
Latest News:

Nobel laureate Donna Strickland delivers inspiring 34th J.W. Hodgins Memorial LectureOctober 10, 2019

It was lasers – and specifically a “cool sounding” course in lasers and electro optics, that originally attracted Donna Strickland to McMaster University as an undergraduate student.

So it was only fitting that about four decades later, with a Nobel Prize in hand, she would return to deliver the 34th J.W. Hodgins Memorial Lecture her award-winning laser research.

In a talk that was informative, entertaining, humorous and down-to-earth, Strickland explained her work, throwing in anecdotes from her undergraduate days at McMaster, research mishaps and challenges, and her life as a female engineering scientist.

One year after her win, she also called on today’s students to come up with the next Nobel Prize winning idea to move the field forward.

Speaking to a full house at the L.R. Wilson Concert Hall on Oct. 3, Strickland explained the PhD research she undertook at the University of Rochester’s Institute for Optics under supervisor Gérard Mouro.

“What I built back in 1985 was a laser hammer,” she said, describing the development of chirped pulse amplification. That research paved the way toward the most intense laser pulses ever created, today essential for laser eye surgery and the machining of small glass parts for use in cell phones.

 The research also earned Strickland and Mouro the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Strickland is only the third woman to receive that recognition.

Now a professor at the University of Waterloo, Strickland shared some of her memories of the Nobel Prize ceremony with the McMaster audience.

“That’s me signing the book with the likes of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie – one of the most surreal moments of my life,” said Strickland, flashing a photo on the screen.

She also identified her favourite media story from the event: a piece in the UK Daily Mail

Nobel laureate Donna Strickland delivers inspiring 34th J.W. Hodgins Memorial Lecture noting that she wore the same dress as Princess Sofia of Sweden to the ceremony and describing her as “a glamorous Nobel Laureate.”

In response to a question about her experience as a female in a male-dominated area of study, she said, “I did notice that I was one of the only women around, but I didn’t notice that it made me any different.”

After the lecture, students described her talk as inspiring.

“It was engaging,” said Engineering Physics master’s Amanda Thomas. “She is very charismatic.”

Fellow Eng Phys master’s student Matt Vukovic said he was particularly inspired by the fact that Strickland won the Nobel Prize for her first ever published paper.

“It was really interesting to see just how little budget went into Nobel Prize work,” commented Ian Phillips, a biomedical engineering PhD candidate who completed his undergraduate degree in Eng Physics in 2014.

He added that he was also inspired to hear her talk about doing scientific research for its own sake.

“She was just doing it for the physics, and we need the people who will do it just for the physics, as well as the people who are trying to solve problems,” he said.

MES president Melissa Cusack Striepe, a fifth year Chemical Engineering and Society student said Strickland’s honesty in admitting all the difficulties she encountered in her research humanized her. “And it was really exciting to see how passionate she is about her work.”

Material Engineering master’s student Farheen Ahmed said she was interested in Strickland’s thoughts on being a woman engineer, but also inspired by her stories. “It was good to hear her talk about all the things that can go wrong in grad school.”

John Preston, a classmate of Strickland’s and now a professor of Engineering Physics and associate dean, research and external relations, said McMaster is often too modest, but Strickland’s success offers evidence the school can stand with the best around the world.

 “I also really liked that in her talk Donna directly challenged the students to come up with the next Nobel Prize idea,” he said.