What if Trailblazing MIT Nanoscientist, Millie Dresselhaus, was Treated Like a Celebrity?

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Cambridge celebrates the contributions of world-renowned female scientist and mentor

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza - http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/7365530528/in/photostream, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38819247

On February 20, 2017, Cambridge lost a world-renowned female physicist, nanoscience trailblazer, professor, and mentor to sister women scientists throughout her 50 year plus career. Known as the "queen of carbon science", Mildred Dresselhaus was the first female Institute Professor and professor emerita of physics and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dresselhaus won numerous awards for her trailblazing work in nanoscience, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award and the Vannevar Bush Award.

She was born Mildred Spiewak on November 11, 1930, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Ethel (Teichtheil) and Meyer Spiewak, who were Polish Jewish immigrants. She attended Hunter College High School, where she was mentored by her physics teacher, and future Nobel Laureate, Rosalyn Yalow, who recognized her talent and encouraged her to take her early interest in science further. Professor Dresselhaus graduated with a science degree from Hunter College in 1951 and went on to become a Fulbright Fellow with a year at Newnham College at the Univer­sity of Cambridge, England. She returned to the United States to gain her master’s degree at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1953 and obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1958. It was here that she began studying super­conductors, the eventual subject of her doctoral thesis. It was a hot topic in solid-state physics, and her choice led to her meeting with fellow physicist Gene Dres­selhaus, whom she married in 1958.The couple had four children.

Dresselhaus was particularly noted for her work on graphite, graphite intercalation compounds, fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and low-dimensional thermoelectrics. Her group made frequent use of electronic band structure, Raman scattering and the photophysics of carbon nanostructures. Her research helped develop technology based on thin graphite which allow electronics to be "everywhere," including clothing and smartphones.

Throughout her career, Professor Dresselhaus served as a role model and mentor for many young female scientists. "When I came, we only had 4 percent of women at MIT, period, and fewer even in physics," Dresselhaus told National Public Radio in 2007, recalling when she was hired by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1960. "And today we're getting close to the 50 percent mark. That's an amazing achievement in one lifetime.

In 2017, General Electric featured Dresselhaus in a video entitled “What If Millie Dresselhaus, Female Scientist, Was Treated Like A Celebrity?”  which is featured in this article.

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