Donna Strickland - The First Woman In 55 Years to Win The Nobel Prize for Physics

At the dawn of this new millennium, women have truly come forward & excelled in every field, be it sports, entertainment, politics or the sciences. There have been countless women scientists quietly working away on their paradigm-changing research over the past few decades, making huge waves in the field with their discoveries & inventions.

Be it German nuclear scientist Lise Meitner, African-American rocket scientist & mathematician Katherine Johnson or British ethologist Jane Goodall - the world has seen what women can do when given the freedom, the power & the room to make great discoveries with their male counterparts. But very rarely are they recognized & lauded for their efforts.

After a gap of over 55 years in the field of physics comes such a story with Donna Strickland. The University of Waterloo laser physicist won the Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering a new way to amplify the power of laser beams in short bursts. Her contribution has led to the creation of modern-day laser technology used in cutting, drilling, manufacturing, data storage, surgical work etc. today. She won the award jointly with her former PhD advisor Gérard Mourou, who was her guide & co-authored her very first research paper in 1985.

It is a huge deal for any scientist to have their first scientific publication not just referenced & remembered by academia, but also institutions like the Nobel Prize & scientists from the world over. Strickland seemed surprised when a journalist asked her thoughts on being the third woman recipient of the award in Physics. “Is that all, really?” she said.

While it was joked that she was the first “non-Maria” to win the award (the previous awardees being Marie Curie & Maria Goeppert Mayer), on a more serious note, why is it that so few women are recognized & rewarded in the STEM fields? A mere 19 women have been recipients out of a history of 607 prizes, barely making 3.2% of the entire list spanning since 1901.

The gender gap is pretty evident from a Pew Research Center article elaborating the inequality women face in STEM jobs. Over 50% reported that they experienced gender discrimination at least once in their life, 36% said they’ve faced sexual harassment as a workplace problem & another 20% agreed that their gender limits their ability to succeed at work. These are huge numbers of women coming forward to address a genuine concern - the lack of support within institutions makes it difficult for women to hit strides like Donna Strickland.

She was herself non-existent on a Google search till the announcement of her winning the prize went public. A quick Wikipedia entry was then compiled, but did it take 33 years for people to notice her work to validate it publicly? What has created more furore is the fact that a scientist of her caliber continues to serve as an Associate Professor at her university. She says she “never applied” for a full professorship, but there’s a dozen factors that might have contributed to not just her own situation, but that of thousands of talented women scientists worldwide.

Science remains a male-dominated arena, but that needs to change with the times. The lack of representation needs to be changed in a well-documented era like ours, and representation needs to be publicly acknowledged for other young women & girls to look up to & take inspiration from. Today’s day is the second Tuesday of October, celebrated every year as Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate women in science. Lady Lovelace is known as the world’s first woman computer programmer, who wrote a theory in 1843 about Charles Babbage’s machine that was revolutionary & ahead of its time. The ideas only came into actual fruition a century later, as she predicted a machine’s potential to translate music, pictures & text into a digital form with her proto-algorithms.

On this Ada Lovelace Day, let’s honor the Bare women of our time in the STEM fields & tip our hat to this year’s Nobel winners Frances H. Arnold & Donna Strickland. May more women carry the light of knowledge & scientific endeavor, beating all odds & societal limitations. To Ada!

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