Mildred Dresselhaus, “Queen of carbon science,” dies at 86
Dresselhaus, PhD’59, was a model for women and scientists everywhere.
Tuesday was a somber day in the Magazine offices. From MIT News we heard of the death of solid state physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, PhD’59, known to all of us who have met her as Millie. Dresselhaus had just been on our minds as the star of a new General Electric advertisement that imagines a world where brilliant scientists like her are regarded with the adoration and emulation we typically reserve for pop stars. Take a look at the ad, “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?”
Dresselhaus. (Photography by Bryce Vickmark, courtesy MIT News Office. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Directed by indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, the spot promotes GE’s efforts to have 20,000 women in technical roles by 2020, and ends by showing women already working in those roles—some, perhaps, inspired by Dresselhaus. Known as “the queen of carbon science” for her research into the optical, conductive, and vibrational properties of carbon at the atomic level, Dresselhaus was a strong advocate for and mentor of women in science. Toward the end of the ad, after walking out onto a stage in front of cheering fans—many of them women—she smiles as though she’s been in the spotlight her whole life.
And often she was, if not in Hollywood style. Dresselhaus met two presidents, one of whom awarded her the highest civilian honor bestowed by the US government, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The recognition followed her National Medal of Science, Enrico Fermi Award, Kavli Prize, and many other honors. She was the first woman at MIT to attain the rank of full tenured professor. The president of MIT, Rafael Reif, commented, “Yesterday, we lost a giant—an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being.” That was our experience of Millie too.