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Millie in Ras al-Khaimah

Tony Cheetham describes Millie's trips to Ras al-Khaimah and the impact those trips had to students (and women) in the Middle East.

Published onApr 09, 2018
Millie in Ras al-Khaimah

Tony Cheetham
MIT Memorial, Millie Serving Society Session

Photo Credit: Geof Cooper

Thank you, everyone. I’m Tony Cheetham, from Cambridge — and, of course, I don’t mean Cambridge, Massachusetts; I mean Cambridge University in the UK.

I wanted to say, first of all, what a huge honor and privilege it is to participate in this event, today. And I’d like to thank Gene and the rest of Millie’s family and the organizers for giving me this opportunity to speak with you, today.

I’d like to think I’m speaking not only on my own behalf, but also on behalf of Millie’s many friends and colleagues in the UK. Something that’s not been mentioned, yet, today, is that Millie actually spent a year working in Cambridge, England, from 1951 to 1952.

Millie, around the time when she went to Cambridge University. Photo credit: Dresselhaus Family

It was her first year of post-graduate work, and it's remarkable to think that happened about 65 years ago. She was attached to Newnham College, and — I’ve been looking into the timing of it, because Millie went there in 1951 — Newnham had only been able to have students who could get degrees from the University since 1948, which was just three years earlier. Prior to that, Cambridge University thought that it was inappropriate to let women have degrees. So even though Newnham was founded in 1871, and people have been studying there for nearly 100 years, they were not actually allowed to get degrees until shortly before Millie arrived there. Now, happily, that changed, of course, and it even became a mixed college in 1978. But it’s still an interesting thing to think about.

When Millie was there, she held a Fulbright fellowship.  And for this, her first year of graduate studies, she was in the Cavendish laboratory.  Another bit of history: Lawrence Bragg was the Cavendish professor, in those days. This means that Millie would have worked in a laboratory under Lawrence Bragg.

Overall, I think that what she got out of this year she spent in Cambridge, England, was an idea of where she wanted to go with her scientific research, in the future. And, of course, that helped to shape what she did subsequently in both the University of Chicago and, of course, at MIT.

Millie receives a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from Cambridge University. Photo credit: Marianne Dresselhaus-Cooper

Millie is still very fondly remembered at Cambridge, and, in June, 2011, we invited her back to Cambridge to get a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa, one of the 38 different honorary degrees that we've been hearing about, today. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there because I was getting a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa at St. Andrews at the same time. But she came back, a few weeks later, for another science conference. So I had dinner with her and with my colleague, Richard Friend, and we caught up.

I should add, here, that Millie also received a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from the University of Oxford, which is my alma mater. Of course, ever since I've been at Cambridge, I’ve been realizing that Oxford is nowhere near as good as Cambridge — funnily enough.

So Millie was in Oxford in June, 2016. Now, at Oxford, they have a tradition of giving their Honoris Causa an oration in Latin, and providing a translation in the program. And their oration had an interesting variation on Millie’s ‘Queen of Carbon’ title. The chancellor said, when referring to Millie, that she was “the Ruler of the Atoms who brought nature's secrets into the light of day.” I thought it was a wonderful quotation and slightly more stylish than the Queen of Carbon.

Now, I've known Millie for quite a long time, but most of my interactions with her have been over the last 12 years or so. One of them involved the National Academies Decadal Review — specifically, the one on condensed matter of materials physics. This was a fine example of her service to science, and Millie co-chaired the review with Bill Spencer from SEMATECH.

Millie and I worked very closely on the whole project and, in particular, we worked on the energy challenge, which dealt with how we can generate power in the future. At that point, in 2006 and 2007, I was still at UC Santa Barbara, where I was on the faculty for 16 years (I moved to Cambridge shortly after we finished that project). But I've got some vivid memories from that time because Millie made two week-long visits to Santa Barbara, so she could work with me on this decadal project.

My memories largely revolve around Millie's phenomenal energy and the incredible drive which she brought to everything that she did — fully on display, when we worked on this project. And I can remember that there was a sort of daily event: at the end of the day, when I was completely exhausted from working with her, I would take her back to the hotel, and she would turn to me and say — the same thing, every evening — “Tony, you haven't given me my homework, yet. What do you want me to do, tonight?”

I did as I was told, and I gave her some homework. And when I went home, I slumped down in an armchair with a gin and tonic and recuperated for the next day. I was so tired, I couldn't manage any further work. Then, the next morning, I'd go pick her up from the hotel, and there she was, with the ‘homework’ I’d given — it was always done, and it was always done brilliantly. She must have been working late into the night, each and every day!  Remarkable.

The other thing that we did, during this period in 2006, was that she came to Santa Barbara for an International Symposium on Materials Issues in Hydrogen Production and Storage. Millie did a lot of research for the DOE on hydrogen. And I won't talk about the conference, itself, except to say that this is the first time I spent a lot of time at a conference with Millie.  

Millie sits in the front row at a conference and takes diligent notes.

It was at this conference that I realized — and, of course, it has been confirmed many times, subsequently — that Millie is one of the few attendees of a conference who never misses a lecture. She went to absolutely every lecture.  She always sat in the front row.  She took copious notes, she asked excellent questions, and she got such a wingspan of intellectual breadth, that she could ask questions of any speaker. And, furthermore, she was the most deciduous of people at attending poster sessions. Now, I have to confess, that's not something I'd say about many of my senior colleagues, many of whom tend to be notable by their absence.

In January, 2007, I was invited to go to the United Arab Emirates. I'd never been, before, and I was to meet with the ruler of one of the seven Emirates — an emirate called Ras al-Khaimah or RAK. His Highness Sheikh Saud, the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, wanted to speak to me about the possibility of establishing a center for advanced materials in the UAE. And thus was born the Ras al-Khaimah Center for Advanced Materials. I was going to be the chairman of the board of this new, initially virtual center.  And I suggested to His Highness that we should invite Millie to be a member of the board. His Highness enthusiastically agreed that we should invite Millie.

So I phoned her up, and I told her what we were doing, and so on — and she said, “Tony, does Sheikh Saud realize that I'm both Jewish, and I'm a woman?”

And I realized… hm…

See, it hadn't actually occurred to me to raise these points with His Highness, earlier, because I held him in such high esteem that I honestly didn't think he would really mind. But then, I thought, “Maybe I had better check it out, just in case, so I can avoid possible embarrassment, later.”

And I remember that I called him up, and I explained to His Highness both of those two minor issues that Millie had brought up. And I still remember his response, which is characteristically straightforward.

He just said, “Tony, is she the best?”

And, of course, it didn't take me long to say, “Yes, Your Highness, Millie is the best.”

“So, let's sign her up, then,” he said.

And so, sign her up, we did!

Millie visited Ras al-Khaimah eight times over the last decade, mainly for the international workshop that we've held every February, during that period. She only ever missed one of the workshops — aside from the one in 2017, of course, which was going on when she sadly passed away.  The 10th workshop is coming this February, 2018, and there, I'm hoping that we will be able to have a special lecture held in Millie's memory.

One of the key aims of the Ras al-Khaimah Center for Advanced Materials (RAKAM) has been to encourage young people, in the Middle East and North Africa, to develop an interest in materials science. Millie threw herself into this objective with her customary energy and zeal, and she got along incredibly well with Sheikh Saud.  He's a wonderful man, and he likes to focus his energy in the same way that Millie does — towards science.  I remember, he often says, “I’m more interested in education and science than in jihad and camel racing.”

In fact, I told him I was coming to this Millie Memorial, and I got a text message from him, just this morning. I'll just read what he said, here, because it was very brief.

His Highness said, “There is no quote that will do Millie justice. She was a minaret of science and the humanities. Aging never wore her down; on the contrary, she was a diamond, polished to shine more brightly with each passing year. We shall miss her, but she will always live in our hearts, and our moments with her are unforgettable.”

I think you can sense the deep respect with which Sheikh Saud held Millie.

Now, I thought I'd just show one or two images of Millie in Ras al-Khaimah.