Last week, for the first time, women accepted Nobel prizes in both Chemistry and Physics.
Dr. Donna Strickland, a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada [from Reshma: my alma matter!], became one of only three women in history to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the first in over 50 years. The previous winners were Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer, in 1963. Dr. Strickland shared the award with two male scientists – French physicist, Gérard Mourou, and American scientist, Arthur Ashkin, who pioneered a way of using light to manipulate physical objects.
Dr. Strickland won the award for her innovative work on high-intensity laser pulses. Her work with Dr. Mourou “paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind,” according to NobelPrize.org. Their method, known as chirped pulse amplification, allowed for more precision in laser technology and has allowed for several real-world applications, including Lasik eye surgery.
In order for Dr. Strickland to do the work, she had to learn to become both a plumber and mechanic. When things did not go as expected, she considered finding new solutions one of the fun parts. Dr. Strickland loves what she does. “Not everyone thinks physics is fun but I do,” Dr. Strickland said in her speech. “Cyndi Lauper had a big hit, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ but they wanted to wait until the workday is done. But I wanna have fun while I’m working.”
In the chemistry field, Dr. Frances H. Arnold, became the 5th woman and 2nd in the last 54 years to be awarded the Noble prize in Chemistry. She is an American professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She also shared the award with two male scientist, George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC Laboratory in Cambridge, England. Dr. Arnold won it for her work conducting the directed evolution of enzymes and proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. This work could lead to more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemicals, including drugs, and in the production of renewable fuels.
Dr. Arnold believes “As long as we encourage everyone — it doesn’t matter the color, gender; everyone who wants to do science, we encourage them to do it — we are going to see Nobel Prizes coming from all these different groups.” Maybe even one of our students in rural Zambia.
I won’t pretend to completely understand their work, but the story has some great lessons around loving what you do, breaking through barriers and thinking about different ways to solve problems. Our Zambia staff might not be up for a Nobel Prize this year, but they turn these lessons into practice each and every day by going up against tough rural conditions, limited resources and unpredictable circumstances. They do this with determination, grit and a smile. As the school year has just come to an end, we want to thank them again for their hard work and commitment to Impact Network.