WiSW: Donna Strickland

Donna Theo Strickland is a Canadian optical physicist and pioneer in the field of pulsed lasers. After graduating from Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, she decided to attend McMaster University because its engineering physics program included lasers and electro-optics, areas of particular interest to her.

Strickland  worked to develop an experimental setup that could raise the peak power of laser pulses. The peak power of the laser pulses had encountered a limitation when the intensity reached gigawatts per square centimeter. Self-focusing of the pulses severely damaged the amplifying part of the laser.

The technique they introduced in 1985 used chirped pulse amplification to stretch out each laser pulse both spectrally and temporally before amplifying it, then compressed each pulse back to its original duration, generating ultrashort optical pulses of terawatt to petawatt intensity.

Using chirped pulse amplification allowed smaller high-power laser systems to be built on a typical laboratory optical table, such as the “Table-top Terawatt Lasers”.

From 1988 to 1991, Strickland was a research associate at the National Research Council of Canada, where she worked with Paul Corkum in the Ultrafast Phenomena Section, which had the distinction at that time of having produced the most powerful short-pulse laser in the world.

Strickland is currently a professor leading an ultrafast laser group that develops high-intensity laser systems for nonlinear optics investigations.

As an experimentalist, one needs to understand physics, but one also needs to be able to make things work. Lasers of the past were very finicky. Because the ultrabrief and ultrasharp light beams are capable of making extremely precise cuts, the technique is used in laser micromachining, laser surgery, medicine, and fundamental science studies, among other applications.

On 2 October 2018, Strickland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on chirped pulse amplification with her doctoral adviser Gérard Mourou. Strickland and Mourou published their pioneering work “Compression of Amplified Chirped Optical Pulses” in 1985, while Strickland was still a doctoral student under Mourou.

The invention of chirped pulse amplification for lasers at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics in Rochester led to the development of the field of high-intensity ultrashort pulses of light beams.

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