Physicist, engineer, and violinist Mildred Dresselhaus, PhD’59, forged lasting bonds at UChicago.
Mildred Dresselhaus, PhD’59, has some advice for young scholars: “It’s a good choice to be in a field that’s unpopular and interesting.”
In 1960, when she was working at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, most of her colleagues were working on semiconductors, which Dresselhaus found interesting, but not interesting enough. Her husband, Gene, who also worked at the lab, suggested she look at carbon, specifically graphite.
“Here was a material that had properties like a semiconductor, but it wasn’t a semiconductor at all,” says Mildred Dresselhaus, professor emerita of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. “It had a very different electronic structure. The little bit I learned made me wonder why no one was interested in it.”
Indeed, Dresselhaus’s colleagues warned her away from carbon and encouraged her to study something more exciting, like magnetic fields. She ignored their advice to work on popular topics, and through 50 years of research into unpopular, interesting carbon has fundamentally altered the way we understand it.
By studying the optical, conductive, and vibrational properties of carbon at the atomic level, Dresselhaus helped establish new uses for carbon forms in batteries and electronics. Today, graphene—a sheet of pure carbon one atom thick—has multiple potential industrial uses because of its strength and light weight, but it began as a far-fetched idea. “Graphene was something you thought about, but never thought was possible,” she says. The theoretical work done by Dresselhaus and others in the 1960s led to its actualization.
Half a century later, carbon still interests her. Dresselhaus’s current research focuses on the transport and optical properties of carbon nanowires and nanotubes.
Between then and now, she has won a Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Enrico Fermi Award, and in November a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. She’s also become known as “the queen of carbon.”
Violin lessons and Nobel laureates
The child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Dresselhaus grew up poor in the Bronx. When she was four, her talent for the violin gained her entry to a music program at a settlement house, where she learned quickly that “the people who had a lot of education were doing a lot better than the people who had less education.”
She went to Hunter College intending to do what most bright young women did then: become a schoolteacher. But at the end of her first year, she met Rosalyn Yalow, who at the time was teaching there because she couldn’t get a research job.
Yalow was “a very opinionated person and had a strong personality,” Dresselhaus says. “She was an inspiring teacher to me. It was kind of funny that she encouraged me to go after science professionally, and she couldn’t get a job.” Yalow eventually did find research work in medical physics and went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work developing the radioimmunoassay for measuring insulin.
Although Dresselhaus did not study carbon at the University of Chicago—her dissertation focused on superconductivity—she credits the University, and especially Enrico Fermi, with her ability to shift easily into a different physics subfield after graduating, and to keep moving from one field to another.
“What I learned from him is that you should be master of your subject, with both deep and broad knowledge, and have a capability for working in the field,” she says. MIT boasts a large number of UChicago physics alumni, and Dresselhaus, who fondly remembers regular home-cooked Italian dinners at Fermi’s house, says they get together periodically to talk about the old days.
The physics faculty at the time “were almost like a team,” she says. “It wasn’t only in science during the day, but they were socially close.”
Strength in numbers
In the early 1960s, following the three births of her sons Carl, Paul, and Eliot, Dresselhaus took five days off from her work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Total. (Her daughter, Marianne, was born in 1959, when she was a postdoc.)
Dresselhaus doesn’t think of her actions then as particularly unusual: just what she had to do as one of two women in a laboratory with 1,000 men. “In those days, it wasn’t so easy for women to be taken seriously,” she says. “If you weren’t dedicated to your job, they’d think you didn’t want to be there.”
By shouldering his share of household responsibilities on top of his own research, Gene Dresselhaus helped Mildred balance a top-flight research career with a family, as did the services of a longtime babysitter. Another factor in those early days was the moral support she gained from her friendship with Laura Roth, the other woman at Lincoln Labs, with whom she stayed in touch for years. Dresselhaus received a Carnegie Foundation grant in 1973 to encourage women to study in traditionally male-dominated fields and to this day makes efforts to support women in science.
The first woman to earn a doctorate under Dresselhaus at MIT was Deborah Chung, who completed her PhD in 1977. The two shared a love of music, but, Chung says, “I chose her as my thesis supervisor not because she is a woman and not because she is a musician, but because I took her solid state physics course and loved it. She is a great teacher.” Chung, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at SUNY Buffalo who won the Pettinos Award from the American Carbon Society, says it wasn’t Dresselhaus’s words but her actions that instilled in Chung career motivation and dedication to research.
While women in science have not achieved parity with men, Dresselhaus has been pleased by the strides they have made. “When I joined the MIT faculty in 1967, only 4 percent of undergraduates were women,” she says. “That’s in all subjects, not just physics.” MIT’s undergraduate student body is now about 46 percent women. “I thought it would take more than my lifetime to be anywhere close to 50 percent.”
“I keep quite busy”
Dresselhaus still plays the violin but no longer teaches physics. She continues to go to her lab at MIT—where she leads an active research group of graduate students, postdocs, and international scholars—every day, though she missed a few days during Boston’s snowstorms this winter. “Coming to the lab is the place where I meet all the young people again,” she says. “Believe it or not, people appreciate me. I keep quite busy.”
She also stays current with the younger generation through her granddaughter, Leora Cooper, a graduate student in physical chemistry at MIT whom she meets for lunch every Wednesday. Cooper’s work focuses on shock waves and has nothing to do with carbon. Still, Dresselhaus says, “We can understand each other’s research very well.”
A(nother) visit to the White House
The award ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November was not Mildred Dresselhaus’s first trip to the White House—not even under the current administration. President Barack Obama hosted her once when she and Burton Richter won the 2012 Enrico Fermi Award, and again in 2013 when she won the 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience. Dresselhaus also received the National Medal of Science from President George Bush in 1990.
Still, the honor was far from routine for Dresselhaus. “All these things are a big surprise,” she says.
With the five tickets the White House gave her, Dresselhaus brought two of her children and three granddaughters to the medal ceremony and, she says, “had a ball.”
The honorees—“all very interesting people,” Dresselhaus says—mingled with each other a bit, though they also had their own guests to talk to. The avid violinist did not, however, get a chance to talk music with fellow medalist Stevie Wonder.