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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Madsen

Women in Rare Company Accept Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

By Sandra E. Garcia - The New York Times

Dec. 11, 2018

Donna Strickland accepting the Nobel Prize in Physics at the award ceremony on Monday in Stockholm. Pool photo by Pontus Lundahl

For the first time, female scientists had won the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics. And on Monday, they accepted their accolades at the same award ceremony in Stockholm.

For Donna Strickland, receiving the call two months ago that she had won the physics prize is the only feeling that can compare, she said, to the moment when she had her scientific breakthrough.

Her colleague had “wheeled his three cameras into my lab one night,” Dr. Strickland said in her acceptance speech, “and together we measured the compressed pulse width of the amplified pulses.”

“I will never forget that night,” she said. “It is truly an amazing feeling when you know that you have built something that no one else ever has and it actually works.”

“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.”

Dr. Strickland, an associate professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, became one of only three women to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. She was awarded the honor for her innovative work on high-intensity laser pulses, and shared in the award with two male scientists.

Frances H. Arnold, pictured at her Nobel lecture in Stockholm on Saturday, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year. TT News Agency/Reuters

In the chemistry category, Frances H. Arnold, an American professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, became only the fifth woman to be awarded the prize. She received the honor for her work conducting the directed evolution of enzymes, proteins that catalyze chemical reactions, and also shared in the prize with two male scientists.

“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 order to build a pulse stretcher, a laser amplifier and a pulse compressor, she said that she had to learn how to clean optical fiber, and that she had to become a mechanic and a plumber.

Dr. Strickland then tried to measure the pulsations and frequency spectrum, she said, but it did not turn out the way she expected. Finding solutions to the many challenges she faced was “the fun part,” she said.

For Dr. Arnold’s part, she pioneered the bioengineering method, which works similar to the way dog breeders mate specific dogs to bring out desired traits, in the early 1990s and has refined it since.

“With evolution in our hands, with the ability to set genetic diversity and tailor the forces of selection, we can now explore paths that nature has left unexplored,” Dr. Arnold said during her acceptance speech.

“We can select life and their chemistries to our benefit to create new sources of energy, to fix the carbon in our atmosphere, to cure disease, to make us younger, more beautiful, or we can make new weapons of terror or state control,” she added.

Dr. Arnold and Dr. Strickland’s wins this year meant it was the first time that women have been honored with a chemistry Nobel and a physics Nobel in the same year. (Last year, the nine people who won Nobel Prizes in all three of the scientific categories were men from Western countries.)

The Nobel Prizes have come under criticism in recent years for the lack of female laureates across all categories. The Nobel Peace Prizethis year was jointly awarded to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has treated thousands of women, for their efforts to end mass rape in war.

Dr. Strickland has said that her work depended in part on the work of the two women who won the physics prize before her.

In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win the prize, for her discovery of radioactivity. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry eight years later, too, for her work in isolating pure radium.

The second woman to win the physics prize was Maria Goeppert Mayer, in 1963, for developing a model that could predict the properties of atomic nuclei. It would take more than 50 years before a woman would win the physics prize again, a period in which only a handful women would be awarded the prize in the chemistry and physiology or medicine categories.

“I joined Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer as the only women to win this prize,” Dr. Strickland said of the physics prize in her speech, noting that she studied Dr. Mayer’s work in graduate school while she was working on her thesis. “I am humbled to be in their company.”

Article published for The New York Times. click here to see original article.

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