Today’s awesome women scientist is very special to me, since she happens to be a graduate of Hunter College! After reading this recent NYT interview with Mildred Dresselhaus, I was inpsired to read more! Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus is currently a professor of physics and engineering at MIT, and is a prominent researcher. Her work mainly involved studying various properties of carbon.
Dr. Dresselhaus was born in Brooklyn in 1930, but spent her early childhood years living in the Bronx. Her early years were difficult, as she grew up during the Great Depression. She first attended public school in the Bronx, but eventually started music lessons on a scholarship at Greenwich House, a settlement house in Manhattan. Her older brother, also extremely intelligent, went to high school at the Bronx High School of Science; unfortunately, at the time, girls were not permitted to go to school there. Instead, she went to Hunter College High School. After graduating from Hunter High School, she went on to Hunter College, hoping to become an elementary school teacher.
But then, Dresselhaus took a class in nuclear physics with Rosalyn Yalow, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in medicine. Dresselhaus describes her as a, “real leader and a very domineering person.” Yalow encouraged Dresselhaus to pursue a career in science, and from then on was always there for Dresselhaus, attending her talks, and ready with letters of recommendation. After graduating from Hunter College, Dresselhaus spent a year at Cambridge University, got her masters at Harvard University, and finished her graduate studies in superconductivity at the University of Chicago.
After a postdoc at Cornell, her and her husband moved to MIT, one of the few institutions at the time that didn’t have anti-nepotism rules. There, she started studying carbon, which was not widely studied at the time. In the NYT interview, Dresselhaus says, “The number of papers published on carbon when I started was essentially zero, and it’s been going up, up, up my whole career.” She was one of the first people to use lasers for magneto-optic experiments, where light passes through a material with a magnetic field. Among other things, she “invented breakthrough techniques for studying individual layers of carbon atoms”, and “devised carbon fibers that are stronger than steel at a fraction of steel’s weight” (NYT). This year, she was awarded the incredibly prestigious Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.
Dresselhaus has consistently been a strong advocate for women in science, both at MIT and nationally. She served as chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics for two years, after serving as president of the American Physical Society. She helped establish committees to “assess the status of women physics undergraduates, graduate students and faculty and make recommendations for improving their status.” (
). She has many other awards, including a National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award, and 28 honorary doctorates. She was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Director of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy under Bill Clinton.
Needless to say, Mildred Dresselhaus is an extraordinary scientist and woman. She has made revolutionary scientific discoveries, and has managed to give back to the scientific community in so many ways.