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Millie, a Wave of Happiness

Mario Vecchi recalls his days as one of Millie's early graduate students, as well as the Dresselhaus family's trip to Venezuela to visit him.

Published onFeb 28, 2018
Millie, a Wave of Happiness

Mario Vecchi
Early Millie Session, MIT Memorial

Photo Credit: Geof Cooper

Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. Gene, nice to see you. I am Mario Vecchi. I was a graduate student under Millie from 1970 through 1975, and, during those years, it was my good fortune to really become close — not only to Millie — but to Gene and their children. In all the years that followed after MIT, we remained close.

Celebrating Millie's life obviously should focus on all the impressive contributions that she has made to science and teaching. Over the course of the day, you will hear many stories about her research and academic contributions. Although I have only shared in those achievements in a very small way, I would like to spend a few minutes speaking about Millie as a friend and as a person, and to explain how close and meaningful she was in my life and to my family.

I feel so inadequate to find the right words to describe the deep feelings of gratitude and appreciation I have had and will always have for Millie as my mentor and friend. I will try my best, with the help of some old faded photographs, to remember and to share the best human qualities of Millie that contributed so much to so many lives that she touched.

Research equipment at the Magnet Lab

Working for Millie, as a graduate student, always provided the most wonderful opportunity to be stimulated and to express your creativity. Millie’s students were a continuous thread of contributions and personal support. This is not an abstract statement; it reflected very tangible benefits that were passed from student to student.

In this picture from 1971, you can see parts of a magneto-optical set up at the National Magnet Lab. It was literally hand-built by her students. The far infrared CO2 laser, with all the needed control and measurement electronics, was built by students before me. I'm not sure, Dennis, if you had a hand in it. The superconducting magnet that I'm standing next to and staring at — it was built by me, and it was the contribution that I left there as my contribution to the experimental infrastructure, which the students that came after me could use and improve. It is, indeed, part of the MIT culture to be open and creative, but it was the special blend of excellence and support emanating from Millie that made our group particularly productive and engaged and supportive.

Mario and other students at Millie's house. Photo Credit: Gene Dresselhaus

Of course, an evening at Millie's house was always a highlight for us students. At the core of Millie’s success was the person she was, and the values she brought to her work and her personal life. Her family was a very visible example for all of us. Millie and Gene created the most inspiring environment for their children and for all their friends.

How could you not be swept by the wave of happiness that existed in Millie's house? The good food, the warm smiles, the musical performances — it was meaningful happiness. It was a happiness rooted in the values that she had. It was happiness rooted in respect. It was happiness rooted in caring. And it was happiness rooted in gratitude for the opportunities that life could provide.

The emerging next generation... Photo credit: Gene Dresselhaus

You should recall I come from Venezuela. In the summer of 1977, I had the privilege of hosting the Dresselhaus family — all of them — as part of Millie's partial sabbatical year at the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas (IVIC), which was the research institute I worked at after I left MIT. The new generation of Dresselhauses also came, of course. And they got a chance to meet another Mario, whom you can see in the photo above — he is my young cousin from Italy. That summer was a wonderful experience for all of us.

Millie at home in another home

Now, Millie carried her inner peace and happiness every place she went. Here, in Venezuela, we're at my mother's home, and even there, Millie made new friends and spread goodwill as much as she did in her own house. In this photo, you can see Millie feeling at home and comfortable even though she was thousands of miles away from Arlington. Across distances and languages — as well as generations — Millie’s attitude and example was always a source of inspiration. With a brilliant and sharp mind, Millie was always sincere and affectionate, ready to engage on any topic. Chess was an interesting part of that evening.

Colonia Tovar, a piece of Germany in Venezuela. Photo credit: Gene Dresselhaus

All the students of my time will remember Millie's hand-written notes for her courses. I not only learned from them, but also used them to prepare my own notes when I started teaching. And I recall discussing physics in the most varied places, as Millie was always ready to answer a question or engage in a conversation. I never had a scheduled meeting time, but somehow I seemed to always be meeting with Millie. She always made time for me.

Here, we're visiting a tourist spot in Venezuela. And guess what? That was another chance to talk about physics and get her advice on how to best explain semiconductor physics to my students.

Younger and younger...

Millie was always an inspiration on how to handle the demands of work and home life. Her own experiences were well-known, and her example was inspiring to me, when I was a graduate student. The personal support that my wife, Francie, and I received from Millie was unforgettable as we dealt with the experience of our newborn, Gabriel, in the middle of graduate school. Millie was not only an inspiration, but truly a friend and a mentor. I will carry, for the rest of my life, the words and the lessons I learned from Millie — lessons that stayed with me to this day, long after the science that we shared had been left behind.

From the Andes Mountaintop

From a mountaintop, one can see far and clear. That's how I felt when learning new concepts from Millie. How clearly I remember the excitement of seeing the elegance and power of group theory, for instance. Abstract concepts like Fermi surfaces and Brillouin zones became intuitive tools to explain macroscopic physical properties of solids. Millie's clarity of thought was only surpassed by her ability to explain ideas with compelling simplicity. She was always patient and humble, sure of her own self to take the time to help students learn.

This is definitely not Building 13…

Now, this is definitely not Building 13. Having to walk around a curious goat is not a common occurrence around the MIT campus, but it didn't faze Millie — or her kids, by the way — at this roadside stop in the Venezuelan countryside. You may wonder what the local people would have thought of measuring Landau levels in a low quantum limit, but you know that Millie was as friendly and comfortable as can be sharing the experience with the people around her. And you can see how her attitude carried over to Carl and Marianne and Eliot and Paul.

Photo Credit: MIT

I regret having spent too little time, over the years, reconvening with Millie and Gene and the children I knew in graduate school. My life was complicated — that's what we all say. It was on my calendar, on March 3, 2017, that I would attend a dinner event with Millie in DC. When I heard of her parting, it was deeply saddening. It hurt inside. It was not fair. I felt cheated.

I then reminded myself that my link with Millie had been profound, even with our distance and our infrequent meetings in her Building 13 office, and her presence will continue to be part of our lives. This picture of Millie in her office shows, on the wall, a Guajira tapestry that she brought back from Venezuela. Somehow, in a small way, it was always a visual symbol of the link I had with Millie, and I will continue to carry that link forever in my heart.

Thank you.

Mario Vecchi and Marianne at the Memorial. Photo Credit: Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper
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