The nanoscience pioneer who broke barriers
Mildred Dresselhaus 1930–2017
In scientific circles, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus was known as the Queen of Carbon. A faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 50 years, her research into that element’s fundamental properties helped transform modern materials science and spawn the nanotechnology industry. She shattered gender barriers along the way. Dresselhaus was the first woman to become a tenured full professor at MIT, and the first woman, in 1990, to win the National Medal of Science for engineering. Despite the demands of her research, she tirelessly advocated for gender equity in science and mentored hundreds of MIT students. For women, science is “almost the best career,” Dresselhaus said in 2014. “One, the work is very interesting, and secondly, you’re judged by what you do and not what you look like. And I think that is a very important thing.”
The daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Dresselhaus grew up poor in the Bronx, sometimes working “in factories to help her hard-pressed family,” said The Washington Post. Despite those difficulties, she and her older brother, Irving, became talented violinists and won scholarships to music schools. When a classmate told her about Hunter High School—a highly selective public school in Manhattan— Dresselhaus “wrote away for old entry exams, studied them, and then aced the test,” said The New York Times. That led to Hunter College, where she studied physics, and then to the University of Chicago, where she earned a doctorate under celebrated physicist Enrico Fermi.
“His mentorship was important at Chicago, where she faced blatant sexism,” said The Boston Globe. For example, Dresselhaus’ Ph.D. thesis adviser never talked with her, she said, “because he didn’t think women should be in science.” Her next and final stop was MIT, where she and her physicist husband took faculty posts in 1960. Among many other areas of carbon research, she explored the element’s potential as a superconductor— a substance in which an electrical current meets almost no resistance—and pioneered research into fullerenes, soccer ball– shaped cages of carbon atoms that can be used as filters, drug-delivery devices, and lubricants. Dresselhaus, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, kept working until a stroke felled her in the lab. “Here’s the interesting thing about women researchers,” she said. “Once they hit their stride, they don’t want to stop.”