Women in Physics

An introduction to Donna Strickland and Eva Silverstein

Introduction to Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland is a Canadian physicist and a pioneer in pulse lasers. She was born in 1959, in Ontario, Canada, and graduated from Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute. Having a particular interest in lasers and lector-optics and drawn to the field by “gut reaction,”[19] Strickland decided to attend MacMaster University for her BSc because of its engineering physics program. 

Strickland then went on to study for her PhD in The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, graduating in 1988 with her thesis on Development of an Ultra-Bright Laser and an Application to Multi-photon Ionization[20].

In 2010, in an interview with the Canadian newspaper The Record, Strickland called herself a “laser jock” and admitted: “the most fun part of my day is when I get to play with my lasers.”[21]

In 2018, Strickland – together with her PhD supervisor Gérard Mourou – received the Nobel Prize for Physics for “groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics” and the “method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.”[22]

Strickland’s Chirped Pulsed Amplification

By the 1980s, the laser had made numerous technologies possible, from barcodes to welding and cancer treatment to name a few. Nevertheless, by the mid-80s, the intensity that a laser could deliver had reached a plateau because any further amplification in the laser pulse would damage the laser system. 

At the time, Strickland was studying for her PhD at the University of Rochester under the supervision of Gérard Mourou. Together they developed a method with which a short laser pulse could be stretched out, thus reducing its peak power. As the stretched pulse has low peak power it can be safely amplified without causing damage. It is then compressed back into a short pulse, increasing its intensity as a result. 

The change the laser light undergoes when the pulse is stretched is called chirp, hence the name Chirped Pulsed Amplification (CPA). Strickland and Mourou published their paper on CPA in 1985, and their invention has since led to groundbreaking developments in the medical field, including LASIK eye surgery, as well the industrial field.

Strickland’s Research Career

Following her PhD and her pioneering CPA invention, Strickland became a research associate at the National Research Council of Canada from 1988 to 1991. There, she worked in the Ultrafast Phenomena Section, which, at the time, had produced the most powerful short-pulse laser in the world[23]. The lab was cluttered and full of dust, with a sign at the door warning janitors away, because the dust helped them “see the beams,” as Strickland then said[24]

After a year-long stint in the laser division of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in ‘91/92, Strickland took a position on the technical team of Princeton’s Advanced Technology Center for Photonics and Opto-electronic materials. 

In 1997, Strickland moved to the University of Waterloo as an assistant professor, where she still teaches as full-time Professor of Physics and Astronomy, becoming the first full-time female Professor in Physics at the institution. Strickland leads the Ultrafast Laser Group at the university and which specializes in developing high-intensity laser systems for nonlinear optics investigations[25].

Strickland's Spectroscopy & Current Research

In general, spectroscopy studies the way matter absorbs and emits light and other radiation based on the radiation wavelength. To find out what a chemical compound is made up of, we can point radiation at it and measure the absorption. Infrared spectroscopy focuses on the electromagnetic spectrum between the visible (800 nanometers) and the short-wave microwave (0.3 millimeters), and the spectra associated with the internal vibration of molecules. 

One of the current research projects Strickland is involved in at the University of Waterloo focuses on the spectral region, also known as the ‘molecular fingerprint region’[26]. The spectral region is the distinctive signature of each molecule, defined by its absorption ranges at specific wavelengths. The spectral region of molecules is becoming increasingly crucial in detecting trace gas of explosives. Strickland’s team is currently working on developing a specific laser system that will generate mid-infrared wavelengths across the spectral region. 

Another area of research for Strickland is presbyopia, which is the medical term for age-related farsightedness. Through active study and research of the crystalline lens of the eye, she is trying to determine whether the creation of microbubbles within the lens would improve its elasticity, thus possibly curing presbyopia.

Strickland’s Nobel Prize & Other Recognitions

Strickland’s CPA invention has had a transformative influence on biology research, medical procedures, and manufacturing. Strickland was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years[27], joining Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). 

Strickland has received several other distinctions, including the Ontario Premier’s Research Excellence Award in 1999 and the Cottrell Scholars’ Award in 2000, which recognizes scholars for their research and academic leadership. 

For her pioneering work and contribution in the field of ultrafast laser and optical science she was named a fellow of the Optical Society of America in 2008 and the Royal Society of Canada in 2019.

Introduction to Eva Silverstein

Eva Silverstein is an American theoretical physicist and cosmologist and currently a Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Silverstein obtained her bachelor’s degree in Physics from Harvard University in 1992 and her PhD. in Physics from Princeton University in 1996. 

Silverstein’s research focuses on the origin of the universe and the nature of the fundamental laws of physics. Her numerous recognitions include the MacArthur Fellowship Award, also known as the ‘genius award,’ and the Arthur P Sloan Fellowship Award[28], both in 1999. 

In 2020, she was awarded the Bergmann Memorial Award by the Israel-U.S. Binational Science Foundation, and, in 2016, she was granted Fellowship at the American Physical Society. 

Silverstein is also on the advisory board of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Gravity, and Cosmology and, in 2020, she was appointed a Member at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Eva Silverstein – Theoretical Physicist & Cosmologist

Attempts to discover the origin of the universe

Silverstein’s Background & Education

Born in 1970, Silverstein was raised in Washington, U.S.A., where her father was an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington State University in Pullman. He went on to become Professor Emeritus and co-authored 3 books in the Topics in Contemporary Philosophy series published by MIT Press, which examined the concept of time in relation to identity, and what is knowledge[29]

An academically gifted student, Silverstein graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1988. Her high school physics teacher, Larry Elsom, remembers her as the “strongest physics student” he ever had. “There was one semester when she never missed a single problem on any test,” he recalls[30]. Silverstein credits Elsom for inspiring her to succeed: “He had a very creative, very serious way of teaching science, which also sparked my interest,” she has said[31].

In 1992, Silverstein earned her bachelor’s degree in Physics from Harvard University, and, in 1996, her PhD. in Physics from Princeton University. In 1996-97, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rutgers University.

Silverstein’s Career 

In 1997, Silverstein was appointed an Assistant Professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), which is a federally owned particle accelerator laboratory operated by Stanford University. A particle accelerator in an apparatus that uses electric or electromagnetic fields to accelerate subatomic particles to high velocities for a variety of research purposes. 

Furthermore, when the accelerated particles collide with each other they generate high-energy X-rays and gamma rays. What makes SLAC unique is its 2-mile-long particle accelerator which generates the world’s brightest X-rays[32]. Scientists from all over the world use this accelerator to probe matter in atomic detail in order to understand the fundamental workings of nature. 

Silverstein was promoted to Associate Professor at SLAC in 2001, and full Professor in 2006. In 2009-2010, Silverstein was a visiting Professor at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California–Santa Barbara. The Kavli Institute is a scientific research facility where physicists and other theorists come “together to work intensely on a broad range of questions arising from investigations at the leading edges of science.”[33].

In 1999, she was also appointed a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study[34].

Silverstein is currently a Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where she focuses on basic problems in several areas of theoretical physics[35].

Silverstein’s Research

Silverstein is interested in the relationship between theories of particle physics and cosmology and questions the fundamental assumptions of physics theory. She does this through the concept of string theory, which is the idea that reality is made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings. These strings vibrate, twist and fold, producing effects in countless, minuscule dimensions which we interpret as everything from particle physics to large-scale phenomena like gravity[36]

Silverstein’s work focuses on the nature of the fundamental laws of physics, as well as the origin and early evolution of the universe, providing insights into the universe’s age, structure, dynamics, and eventual fate. 

One of Silverstein’s ideas is monodromy inflation, a possible explanation as to how and why the Big Bang might have happened. The theory suggests that, prior to the Big Bang expansion, the universe went through a period of extremely rapid exponential expansion[37]

During this earlier expansion, the energy density of the universe was dominated by a cosmological constant-type of vacuum energy; this energy later decayed and turned into the matter and radiation that fill the universe today.

“Monodromy inflation grew out of an attempt to simplify string-theoretic models of dark energy,”[38] Silverstein says.

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