Courtesy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A Queen to Some, a Role Model to Many

Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus uses her influence to blaze a trail for women in science.

In physics fields, Mildred Dresselhaus is known as the “Queen of Carbon,” but you might not glean the level of scientific royalty by speaking with a woman entirely modest about the list of accolades she’s stacked up over the last five decades.

“I was always astonished that I was selected for these awards,” she says. “They happened, and the recognition makes you think that maybe you’re doing something interesting.”

Her work over the last 50 years hasn’t just been interesting, but groundbreaking. Dresselhaus’s research with carbon paved the way for certain kinds of nanotechnology.

Upon presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom two years ago, President Barack Obama went so far as to say she’s among the innovators who have “changed our world.”

“Growing up in New York during the Great Depression, this daughter of Polish immigrants had three clear paths open to her: teaching, nursing, and secretarial school. Somehow she had something else in mind,” Obama said. “She became an electrical engineer, and a physicist, and rose in MIT's ranks. She performed groundbreaking experiments on carbon and became one of the world's most celebrated scientists. Her influence is all around us, in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives.”

Since beginning her career in physics at Hunter College in New York in 1951, Dresselhaus has gone on to earn the National Medal of Science in 1990, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 – the highest honor bestowed to a civilian – and the IEEE (formerly the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Medal of Honor last year, among many others.

But after all of the recognition of her tireless efforts toward advancing science, she remains humble, and committed to her original love of teaching – she continues her work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today, at the age of 85.

“I think the idea of emphasizing awards and arranging your life to get more awards isn’t the thing to do,” Dresselhaus says. “You do science because you’re excited about it, and it changes the world and makes the world a better place, you hope. And I’m trying to do that. That’s the part that excites me more.”

Back when Dresselhaus was growing up in New York City, she says of the three possible career paths for women at the time (secretarial work, nursing, and teaching) teaching seemed the most appealing. A career in science wasn’t even on the table, at a time when fewer than 2 percent of people earning Ph.D.s were women.

So until she started college, Dresselhaus went down the path toward becoming a schoolteacher. She was lucky enough to get a good education. She earned a violin scholarship to attend the Greenwich House Music School – largely based on the fact that her older brother was a musical prodigy, she claims – and went on to Hunter College High School, which she says was one of few high-quality schools open to women at the time.

Dr. Dresselhaus in her high school yearbook!

When she started her undergraduate career at Hunter College, however, everything changed.

There, she met Rosalyn Yalow – another prominent female physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for her medical work. Yalow spent just one semester at Hunter College early on in her career, training women who would go on to be teachers.

Dresselhaus was her student in a physics class during her second year, and says it was Yalow who pushed her to go down the path of science and physics.

“She told me I had enough talent to go on with this and encouraged me to do so,” Dresselhaus says. The two grew to become friends, and followed each other’s work until Yalow passed away in 2011.

Just as Yalow encouraged her to pursue a career in science, Dresselhaus has continued to advocate for women in STEM. The IEEE credits her with blazing a path for women in science.

“Her unquestioned accomplishments in the laboratory and classroom gave her an unparalleled credibility in this national dialogue,” the institute said upon announcing her as the recipient of its Medal of Honor in 2015, designating her also as a role model for female engineering students pursuing a career in what is still a male-dominated field.

Dresselhaus laments that while things have improved somewhat for women in science, there is still a long way to go.

“There’s lots yet to do for young people, problems that are not solved,” she says. “Science still has as many unknown factors. The more you learn, the more new things you uncover that need to be learned.”

It’s that excitement of new discovery and learning that she says she loves about teaching.

“Seeing students in my class brighten up, see the light and understand things in a new way, get excited about what they’re doing,” keeps her going, she says.

But students pursuing careers in scientific fields today, particularly women, have additional challenges, she says.

Dr. Dresselhaus working with one of her students.

“You have to love it, you have to work hard at it,” Dresselhaus says. “Science has become more complex now than it used to be. It has become very specialized. However, what you learn now is the importance of your career, especially your early career. Science will change dramatically during the course of your career, so be prepared to learn many new things.”