The Current

3 women have a Nobel Prize in Physics. This UBC professor aims to eliminate the gender bias

Canadian Donna Strickland became the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. A UBC professor explains how she's working toward inspiring more underrepresented young students to pursue the field.

Donna Strickland became the first woman to be honoured since Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963

UBC Professor Marina Milner-Bolotin studies how to teach physics - and how to get girls and other under-represented students interested in matter, energy, time and the structure of the universe. (Submitted by Marina Milner-Bolotin with permission from UBC)

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It's taken 55 years for a woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. 

On Tuesday, Canadian Donna Strickland was named a recipient of the prestigious award. She is one of three women to win a Nobel Prize in this field — ever. The other two were Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 and Marie Curie in 1903.

UBC professor Marina Milner-Bolotin is determined to help improve gender equity in the field.

She teaches pedagogy​ in the department of education at the University of British Columbia. Her studies specifically focus on educating teachers to engage and inspire students who have been under-represented in the field of physics.

"When I was growing up I saw many women doing physics, getting PhDs in physics. I didn't even think that it was unusual," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Polish born French physicist Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Milner-Bolotin was born in the Soviet Union where she said the attitudes toward women studying science was very different than North America. But when she moved to pursue her PhD at the University of Texas, she was shocked to learn she was the only woman out of 30-plus students.

"Science should be inclusive of different people because we all have a contribution to make but to get to that point we have to help every child in Canada to get high-quality education and to have support from the parents and from the families," she explained.

In Canada, women continue to be under-represented in physics. In a 2017 study by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the percentage of women getting degrees in physics dropped from 30 per cent to about 12 per cent between 2000 and 2009. 

Regardless of gender, Milner-Bolotin strives for a day when every person who has a desire to pursue science will have this opportunity.

"I personally will celebrate the day where we do not need women in physics groups because it will be normal that women are in physics or in engineering or in science," she told Tremonti.

When asked if she sees this as a realistic possibility, the professor replied: "If I didn't believe it was possible I would have quit my job."

The Current also spoke to physicist Jessica Wade, a researcher at the Imperial College of London. 

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

Produced by The Current's Danielle Carr, John Chipman and Ghalia Bdiwe.