Mildred S. Dresselhaus (1930–2017)
“I like to be challenged. I welcome the hard questions and having to come
up with good explanations on the spot. That’s an experience I really enjoy.”
–Mildred S. Dresselhaus
National Medal of Science recipient in 1990 “for her studies of the electronic properties of metals and semi-metals, and for her service to the nation in establishing a prominent place for women in physics and engineering.”
Mildred S. Dresselhaus, born Mildred Spiewak, grew up attending the tough public schools in a poor section of the Bronx, New York City. Though she originally planned on becoming an elementary-school teacher, her encounter with physicist Rosalyn Yalow while an undergraduate at Hunter College inspired Dresselhaus to pursue science.
After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1958, Dresselhaus received an NSF-sponsored postdoctoral fellowship to study superconductivity at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.. She then moved to Boston, Mass., so that she and her husband, physicist Gene Dresselhaus, could accept positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory. While raising four young children, Mildred Dresselhaus became a full professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at MIT; at the time, women made up only 4 percent of the student population.
Mildred S. Dresselhaus holding a model of a carbon nanotube. Credit: Ed Quinn
Her research has been instrumental in the development of the nanotechnology field, and her work has earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon.”
Dresselhaus credits Rosalyn Yalow and another great physicist, Enrico Fermi, for taking interest in her when she was a student and encouraging her to pursue challenging research goals. Dresselhaus herself has spent much of her career promoting the participation of women in science, and received the 2010 American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences. Outside of the laboratory, Dresselhaus enjoys playing violin and viola in chamber groups.
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