Never say never: Nobel wisdom from Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland (left) receives her honorary doctorate from then-Chancellor Suzanne Labarge. Photo by Sarah Janes.

Madam Chancellor, President Deane, honoured guests, graduands, family and friends,

It is great being back celebrating with McMaster. Thank you so much for bestowing on me this honour. Decades ago, when I was sitting at my own convocation, I certainly never expected to be back here receiving such an honour.

This year, I seem to be walking down memory lane and I have been back to almost every place I have studied or worked, including my elementary school.

Most have said “this is where she got her start.” Probably only the elementary school can really say that, but of course each step of the road is a new beginning.

I have been asked numerous times where I got my love of lasers. Although my mother claims it is because my father showed us a big laser at the then new Ontario Science Centre, saying, “Lasers are the way of the future,” I don’t actually remember that.

What I do remember is looking through various university calendars wondering where to go after high school and finding the Engineering Physics program at McMaster. I thought that was the perfect program for me, so I wouldn’t have to choose between physics and engineering. Then I read that part of the program was about lasers. I thought, “How cool does that sound,” and somehow I just knew that was the program for me.

So I would say I started down my career path in laser science here at McMaster University in the Engineering Physics program. I absolutely loved the program.

I have also been asked many times where I found that red dress for the Nobel ceremony. (This could be the first time that dress shopping has come up in an Engineering convocation address.) My answer is that I couldn’t have done it without my girlfriends from Moulton Hall. Shortly after the announcement, Hanna, my first-year roommate from Moulton Hall, emailed me and two of our close friends from down the hall, Kath and Marg, saying, “We need a Say Yes to the Dress day!” They arranged the day of shopping to find that dress.

A geek like me knows very little about fashion or how to find a ball gown, but my roommate knows. Hanna and I were nothing alike, but we became terrific friends.

One of the great things about going away to university is that you get pulled out of your comfort zone and find out that there is so much more to the world then what you have yet experienced.

Of course, university is all about learning, but the friends you make while you are busy studying are every bit as important. I am thrilled to see some of my buddies from my Eng Phys Class of ’81 in the audience today.

I have been so lucky in life. I left McMaster with a great education and fabulous friends. I hope the same is true for all of you.

So now that you have mastered the challenge of getting a degree from McMaster University, what is next for you? What opportunity have you found, what challenge have you set for yourself?

“You get pulled out of your comfort zone and find out that there is so much more to the world then what you have yet experienced.”

After McMaster, I was off to the University of Rochester for my PhD in Optics. I knew I wanted a PhD since I was in elementary school, because I just knew I belonged in school and getting a PhD was the ultimate in education. I had no plans for anything past that. Part-way through grad school, I realized that I had to start thinking about what would come next. I was in my third year of grad school when I learned of a dream job working with Canada’s leading ultrafast laser scientist Paul Corkum at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

I was very lucky. As you know, my PhD ended up being pretty successful and it helped me land that dream job. It was a three-year post-doctoral position.

By the end of grad school, I had started dating one of the guys in the same research group, but told him, that I would never marry an American because I was moving home to Canada and nothing was going to stop me.

Doug, that guy, is now my husband. He likes to keep reminding me of all the things I said I would never do but ended up doing.

When I moved to Ottawa, Doug had landed the ideal job for an ultrafast laser person – a permanent job at Bell Labs in New Jersey. We decided to get married when I finished my post-doc. Since he had the permanent job, I started looking for a job in New Jersey. How hard could it be? After all, I had wanted the one and only job with Canada’s leading ultrafast person and got it. Surely, I could find some laser job in all of New Jersey. Not so much.

A colleague from Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California told me that if I couldn’t find a job in New Jersey he had a job for me at Livermore. I said I would never take a job in California and at a U.S. National lab where Canadians can’t get the necessary security clearances to enter most of the buildings, including the laser building at Livermore.

With just three months left to find a job, I had the opportunity to give an invited talk at the main laser conference and I decided that I would have to give the talk of my life so that someone in the room would want to hire me. I did give such a good talk that someone followed me out of the room to talk to me about a job. Wouldn’t you know, the one person in that room who wanted to hire me was from Livermore. There went another never.

After our honeymoon, my new husband returned to New Jersey and I moved myself to California. Many couples try living together before marriage. Doug and I tried marriage before living together.

The hardest thing about being highly educated is that you have to be flexible and be open to compromises. It is so hard to find an ideal job where you would ideally want to live. You have to decide what is most important to you at that time. My husband and I kept looking for jobs so we could be together and we were only apart for one year after we were married.

I think I have been incredibly lucky. You are all lucky, too, being very intelligent and highly educated. It is up to you what you do with that luck. You have to know inside you what you really want and then go for it.

And most importantly, never say never.

Make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. You never know where life is taking you so you simply have to try and enjoy the ride.

Congratulations and I wish you all the best of luck!

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