ANN ARBOR—In the mid-1980s, physicist Donna Strickland was working in a laboratory at the University of Rochester.

Then a graduate student with renowned physicist Gérard Mourou, Strickland was tasked with generating ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses. Lasers had been around since the 1960s, but scientists immediately started to invent ways to improve them and make them more powerful, including how to make each laser pulse incredibly energy dense.

To do this, researchers needed to make the laser pulse very short. But the problem was, the laser pulses could only be so short without melting the laser’s amplifier into a mess of plasma, or distorting the laser beam itself.

Strickland had a problem: The lab room where she was building the amplifier didn’t have a laser oscillator, which is the source of low-energy short pulses to be amplified. Luckily, some other graduate students in Mourou’s lab did have one.

Ted Norris, now the Gérard A. Mourou Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering at U-M, was one of those students.

“We spent an evening setting up an optical fiber that went from the laser in my lab, up into the ceiling and over into her lab,” he said. “We found a way to make it work.”

Strickland then put into practice Mourou’s idea of chirped pulse amplification. The paper she and Mourou, now professor emeritus of engineering at U-M, published based on the work done while at the University of Rochester garnered them the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Strickland will deliver a talk about the work at on Oct. 30, for the U-M Department of Physics’ annual Ta-You Wu lecture series. The event is free and open to the public.

Just the third woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, Strickland has repeated, in previous interviews, that the focus on her gender is surprising.

“I’m certainly aware of the climate. But I don’t see myself as a woman in science. I see myself as a scientist. I didn’t think that would be the big story,” said Strickland, now a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, in a profile in The Guardian. “I thought the big story would be the science.”

The science

The problem with simply turning up the power of a laser is that the shorter the laser pulse, the more power each pulse has, even if the same amount of energy is flowing into the pulse.

Read more on the U-M News Services website.