Canadian woman's Nobel Prize in Physics an inspiration for young girls

Women in the sciences are celebrating news of a Canadian researcher joining the rarified ranks of female winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Donna Strickland part of a team recognized for work in lasers

The 2018 Nobel laureates in physics Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, are depicted in a sketch distributed by Nobel Media. (Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media AB 2018)

Women in the sciences are celebrating news of a Canadian researcher joining the rarified ranks of female winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics and hoping it may encourage more young women to join similar fields.

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has become the first woman in 55 years and the third ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 were the previous winners.

"I turned on the news this morning and saw that, and I was honoured to be part of a field that recognized the work of this particular researcher," said Sandy Baumgartner, the CEO for the Saskatchewan Science Centre.

"It encourages all of us to do more."

Strickland, 59, shared the prize with an American scientist and another from France for their work in laser physics.  

Canadian professor Donna Strickland is shown in a University of Waterloo handout photo. (University of Waterloo via Canadian Press)

Baumgartner described Strickland's work studying powerful laser pulses as "pretty cool science" that continues to  impact modern technologies like laser eye surgery.

"The fact that she's a woman is great for encouraging young women to pursue careers in science," she said.

The science centre introduced a pilot project last year that saw women engineers, new to the profession, act as mentors to younger females interested in the profession.

"Just having that opportunity to be exposed to women doing really interesting things in those fields, is an incredible first start to getting more women pursuing careers in STEM," said Baumgartner.

She said the other important piece of the puzzle is in creating environments where women feel supported and welcome to stay in STEM fields.

Teacher says changes are happening

Carla Cooper is a science teacher at Lumsden High School, who was herself recognized with a Prime Minister's Award for teaching excellence in STEM this year.

She said she wants to encourage her young female students to consider a career in STEM and talks to them about the the importance of diversity in the field of science. 

It's people like Donna Strickland that have paved the way for our younger generation to just go in.- Carla Cooper, science teacher

Women in the past had to break into a "boys' club" of science, but the students of today aren't necessarily facing the same challenges, she said.

"It's people like Donna Strickland that have paved the way for our younger generation to just go in. Everybody's on a level playing field. Men aren't better than women. Women are just as smart as men," she said.

The news of the Nobel Prize for physics just underscores that fact, she said.

"This is so encouraging for all students — especially my girls."

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