Top Hat’s founders, Mike Silagadze and Mohsen Shahini, have offered their enthusiastic congratulations to 2018’s joint Nobel Prize for Physics winner Dr. Donna Strickland, who teaches at their alma mater, the University of Waterloo.

Silagadze and Shahini, who started Top Hat in an apartment close to campus after graduating from UW, have seen many notable graduates and professors making their mark in their respective fields. And this time, it was Strickland, an associate physics professor and teacher, who shared the Nobel Prize this week for “groundbreaking inventions in the fields of laser physics.”

Strickland received the Nobel alongside fellow physicists Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou. One half of the $1 million prize went to Ashkin for “optical tweezers and their application to biological systems”, and the other half was jointly awarded to Mourou and Strickland “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.”

Strickland is only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, and the first woman to do so in 55 years. She joins a distinguished duo of females: Marie Curie, who won in 1903 for her work on radiation, and Maria Goeppert Mayer, who won in 1963 for her proposal of the nuclear shell model.

Strickland, during the announcement of the prizes in Stockholm, Sweden this week, said: “First of all, you have to think it is crazy… And you do always wonder if it’s real.”

Laser jock

Donna Strickland, a self-described ‘laser jock’, was born in 1959 in Guelph, Ontario. She earned a B.Eng from McMaster University and her PhD from the University of Rochester.

It was while studying at Rochester that she began working under the tutelage of Mourou. The duo would go on to create a type of technology called ‘Chirped Pulse Amplification’ (CPA), described by the Nobel Prize committee as ‘the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by humankind.”

The technique they developed has opened up new areas of research and led to broad industrial and medical applications. CPA is used in fields as diverse at micromachining and corrective eye surgery.
Strickland has been teaching at UW since 1997. She oversees an ultrafast laser lab and works with a team of undergraduate and graduate students. 

She recalls the first time she visited a laser lab, thinking that the colors resembled that of a Christmas tree. “The most fun part of my day is playing with my lasers,” she told the Waterloo Record in 2010.

Science and creativity

Speaking about the win, Top Hat’s founders were full of praise.

“It’s an incredible achievement,” said Mike Silagadze, a Waterloo engineering alumnus and CEO of Top Hat. “I’m proud to be a Waterloo grad—the school is a hotbed of talent and Dr. Strickland’s win is another example of what our community is capable of accomplishing. It shows the world we’re able to not only compete, but win at the highest level.”

Mohsen Shahini, Top Hat’s Chief Academic Officer who studied at Waterloo for his PhD in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, echoed Silagadze’s sentiments.

“Some people think science isn’t creative, but I disagree. Dr. Strickland brought a huge amount of creativity to her field of research, resulting in a discovery that is now being justly rewarded. We need people like Dr. Strickland, people who are continually willing to push that innovation envelope and not give up when things get difficult.”

Strickland previously received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and was also made a Fellow of the Optical Society of America. But when asked by a reporter at the Nobel press conference what it felt like to be the third woman in history to win the physics prize, Strickland was surprised. “I thought there might have been more.”

“We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. I’m honored to be one of those women.”