Nobel physics recipient helped light the way for Niagara College

Nobel Prize winner in physics Professor Donna Strickland at her lab at the University of Waterloo. Photo reprinted with permission from the University of Waterloo

An op-ed article written by Niagara College’s Marc Nantel, PhD, associate vice-president Research & Innovation, was posted in Niagara’s dailies recently. It provides a local perspective of Nobel Prize in physics winner Donna Strickland.

The eyes of the world are now on Donna Strickland who has become the first woman in 55 years — and the third ever — to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, but Niagara residents may be interested to know why we have a special reason to cheer her on.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences announced Strickland and French physicist Gérard Mourou as winners of half the physics Nobel for developing what is known as chirped pulse amplification, while the other half of the prize was awarded to U.S. researcher Arthur Ashkin who invented ‘optical tweeters’ as a way of using laser light to hold and manipulate living cells.

For us at Niagara College, which is home to one of the only undergraduate credentials in lasers and photonics in Canada, having a fellow Canadian “laser jock” — as Prof. Strickland calls herself — receive this prestigious honour is truly a reason to celebrate.

For me, as associate vice-president of Research and Innovation at the College, it’s more personal. More than a decade of my own research career was shaped by the technique that Donna and her then-supervisor Mourou invented, chirped pulse amplification, which revolutionized the development and applications of ultrashort-pulse high-intensity lasers.

In fact, I worked in Gérard’s Centre for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s, and I have had the pleasure of co-authoring 10 papers with him on the subject of these lasers and their uses, from laser development to x-ray sources and ion production to laser eye surgery. Small world!

I first met Donna in 1990, when she was a post-doc at the National Research Council labs in Ottawa where I did my PhD experimental work.

After we both travelled to other countries and came back home to Canada, Donna and I collaborated on a few projects over the years, specifically on the curriculum development and teaching of optics and lasers, which is another aspect in which she excels. These projects resulted in a new professional development program at University of Waterloo and the creation of the Ontario Photonics Education and Training Association (OPETA), which I chaired from 2001 to 2008.

Through OPETA, we managed to raise from industry more than $5 million in photonics equipment for education institutions across Canada, including for Donna’s labs at Waterloo and ours at Niagara College.

This was a critical time for the photonics engineering technician and technologist programs at Niagara College, as we were building our labs and recruiting the few initial classes of students who would graduate as laser experts.

Donna’s husband, Doug Dykaar, was the chair of the industry advisory group that helped develop the curriculum and define the lab requirements, so Niagara College owes much to the Strickland-Dykaar family.

The two photonics engineering programs at Niagara College are doing very well and I hope that our students in those programs are as excited as I am to see Donna receive such an honour.

On behalf of Niagara College, I would like to congratulate my colleague, Prof. Donna Strickland from the University of Waterloo, on her Nobel Prize for Physics. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Well done, Donna!

~ Marc Nantel, PhD, associate vice-president, Research & Innovation