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Millie Serving Society

Michelle Buchanan discusses the importance of giving back to society and their work together on the Hydrogen Economy study.

Published onApr 05, 2018
Millie Serving Society

Michelle Buchanan
MIT Memorial, Millie Serving Society Session

Photo Credit: Geof Cooper

Good afternoon. It's certainly a pleasure to be here. I look back at what we've heard, this afternoon, and I was just thinking — people often tell young professors that they’re going to be judged on three things, as they go through their career and get tenure and move on.

We've heard about two of those things so far. We've heard about scholarship and research. We've heard about teaching and mentorship. And the third leg is service.

Millie, as you've heard, has given back many times.  She’s given back to the students, here at MIT.  She’s given back to this institution. And now, I'd like to turn our focus onto what she has done outside of this institution, and what she has done to impact science in this country and around the world.

Millie Dresselhaus prepares to speak at the UN. Photo credit: Marianne Dresselhaus Cooper

If you look at Millie's resume, it goes on for 7 to 8 pages about all the different committees that she’s served on. Looking at the body of work that she’s done, it’s just phenomenal that she had time to go around the world and serve on all of these different committees. But she had a tireless devotion to helping others, and we've heard some of that today. She chaired committees, she joined the APS and AAAS and rose through the ranks to become presidents and on the board directors of those organizations.

In the National Academies, Millie rose into leadership positions and did a lot of different reports that have been very important to our community, both in the area of technical advances and also in promoting the positions of women in science — as we've also heard, earlier today.

The fact is, Millie was one of those rare individuals who was thoughtful and selfless. She was able to step outside of her personal research areas and serve science in a larger way. That's not always a characteristic of high-powered research scientists, to step aside and help others, and that's one of the characteristics of Millie that are a part of her most long-lasting legacy.

Millie and Bill Richardson at CERN. (Photo credit: CERN)

Millie was very valued in the community, and was often asked to help in different countries and in the United States.  You'll hear more about that from Tony and from Harriet, who will be speaking after me. But locally, in the United States, she held very many positions within the Department of Energy, chairing committees, writing reports, and serving as the head of the Office of Science. She was a big advisor with the National Science Foundation, and you'll see that she had one of the most popular reports that the NRC put out, which was the decadal study of condensed matter research for the NRC.

Millie and Gene outside the White House, just before meeting with President Obama. Photo Credit: Shoshi Cooper

One of my earliest memories with Millie was when we worked together on a workshop for the Department of Energy on hydrogen storage.  This was one of the early reports that we did for basic research needs. It was interesting to work with her. I was kind of a neophyte at this, while she had done reports like these for years and years and years.

Millie warned me, right after the workshop was over, that we had to get report out pretty quickly, because the Office of Science was looking for funding for hydrogen storage in utilization.  She then said, “I'm going to warn you, I'm going to be gone for the next week or so, but we're going to set up this method, so we can write this report.  Here’s what I'm going to do: I'm going to fax you sections of the report as people send it to me. I want you to make the corrections, edit it again, send it back to me, and we'll just do that. But I'll call you, because I don't know where I'm going to be, and I won't know when to send it to you.”

It turned out that I was going to be at my mother's house, at that time, and my mother had no internet or a fax machine. So I had to go to Kinko's and the local coffee shop, in order to get all the information Millie was sending.

Off Millie went, after she left DC! She went back to Boston, packed her bag, and then left to go abroad for a week. She had told me she would be going abroad, of course, but I didn’t dream that she was going to so many different places!

Millie, Michelle, and George Crabtree, 2003

But, as I said, she had to pack her bags.  So I got a call from Boston, and she faxed me the first package of handwritten notes on these typed pages. Then, she went off to Dallas.

The moment she landed from that short flight, which lasts about two hours, she sent me another version. So I did my part and sent stuff back to her, with some help from Laura, of course.

Next thing I know, Millie was calling me from Israel. She was over there to get an honorary doctorate, and she told me that she was going to be sending me some more information.

Then, the next thing I know, she was calling me from Argentina, so she could send me some more information. And, of course, I did my part and sent things back and forth to her.

Anyway, to finish up that week, she ended up at Northwestern to receive an honorary degree. Now, all this time, remember that my mom was answering the phone. So although Millie was calling me all the time, my mom was the one getting all the phone calls! Some days, we'd get three or four calls a day! So after the second day, my mother turned to me and said, “Who is this Millie lady? And why is she calling you, all the time?”

And it was funny, because Millie would always say to my mother, “Could you run to Kinko's and get this fax? It's very important for her to get this fax, so she can send it back to me.”

And my mother was saying, “You know, I don't understand why Millie is always telling me to go do things!”

So I told mom, “Look, this is a very, very wonderful lady that I have gotten the pleasure to work with. She's an important scientist from MIT and, if you met her, you would love her, immediately.”

It turned out, though, that by the end of the week, my mom and Millie were on a first-name basis. And whenever I saw Millie, she would always ask me how my mom was doing. So it was really sweet that she took that time to get to know my mom.

But I think one of the things that I took away from her editing, was that Millie knew that, to be a good writer, you have to know your audience.