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Just Millie

Dennis Buss, Millie's 3rd graduate student, remembers Millie's earliest research days, when she was "Just Millie".

Published onFeb 21, 2018
Just Millie

Dennis Buss
Early Millie Session, MIT Memorial

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

When Marianne asked me to speak at this event, I accepted without hesitation.  It was only later that I began to worry — what I could possibly say about Millie that hasn’t already been said?  Millie has been very prominent in the world of science throughout her career.  Much has been said and written about her during her long and productive career, and even more has been written since she left us in February. But it occurred to me that I have some insights into Millie’s greatness that may not be widely known.  I knew Millie 50 years ago, when she was “just Millie”.

During her 50 year career, Millie made contributions to the physics of materials that have enshrined her, along with Marie Curie and others, in the pantheon of the world’s great scientists.  And she has been justifiably showered with awards and accolades.  But I started working with Millie 50 years ago.  I had the good fortune to be her third student.  I started with Millie in 1965, when she was still at Lincoln Lab.  I experienced Millie’s greatness from a time:

  • before she received the IEEE Medal of Honor,

  • before she served the Clinton administration as Director of Science at the Department of Energy,

  • before she received the National Medal of Science from President George Bush,

  • before she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama,

  • before she became the first woman at MIT to be awarded the prestigious title of Institute Professor.

Today, I will remember Millie from the time before she joined the MIT faculty. At that time, Millie was “just Millie”.  She was one of 1,000 Research Scientists at Lincoln Lab.

President Rafael Reif was quoted in the Globe as saying that, in addition to Millie’s monumental technical achievements, she was a “delightful human being”.  This was as true 50 years ago as it has been throughout her career.  I don’t recall how many times my wife and I, along with other graduate students, were invited to have dinner at Millie & Gene’s house in Arlington, but I vividly recall Millie preparing dinner while she helped Marianne, Carl, Paul & Elliot with their homework and chatted with me about lattice dynamics of PbSnTe.  Dinner was always followed by chamber music.  Sometimes, Millie herself would play, but more often, it was her children who performed.  Dinners with Millie were truly memorable.  On these occasions, Millie invited me and my fellow students into her family.  Millie was, indeed, a delightful human being.

Anantha Chandrakasan, Dean of Engineering, observed in his remarks that Millie had a passion for her research that was infectious.  There was a story about Millie that circulated around Lincoln Lab when I started with Millie in 1965.  According to the story, Millie left Lincoln Lab one Friday afternoon, pregnant, and returned to work Mon morning after delivering a baby.   This story could well be true.  Millie proudly related that she took only 5 days off from work for the delivery of her three sons.  This is a measure of her passion for her work.  As an impressionable graduate student, I was quickly infected by this passion.

Working with Millie and Gene during my first summer at Lincoln Lab, I grew to love physics.  I gained the confidence that I could tackle any problem.  Millie didn’t tell me what to work on:  she allowed me to explore and select a thesis problem by myself.  She didn’t tell me how to do my work.  I learned by following her example.  But whenever I had a question, Millie provided the answers I needed.  She taught me the importance of gaining a thorough understanding of previous publications.  She taught me the importance of planning my research.  She emphasized the paramount importance of integrity in correctly and accurately reporting the results of simulations and experiments.  Through the example of her seamless research collaboration with Gene, I learned how to collaborate effectively with others.

During my first two years with Millie, I was so inspired by her as a teacher that, in 1967, I wrote a memo to Prof Louis Smullin, Electrical Engineering Department head at the time, extolling Millie’s virtues as a teacher and a researcher and encouraging him to hire Millie onto the EE faculty. I remind the younger students in the audience that Course-VI was called Electrical Engineering in 1967.  I also remind you that there was no e-mail.  I typed the memo on a typewriter! It is hard for me in imagine the naiveté and the hubris of a graduate student writing such a memo to a department head of MIT.  But it was totally sincere.  Millie was such an inspiring teacher and research advisor that I threw caution to the wind.  I can pinpoint the time when I wrote this memo, because it was only a few months after I sent the memo that it was announced that Millie would join the MIT EE faculty.  As a grad student 50 years ago, I was unaware of the deliberate process by which faculty are selected at top universities like MIT.  Now that I understand this process, I realize that people other than me had recognized Millie’s greatness as a teacher, and that the hiring process had begun long before I sent my memo.  But, to this day, I wonder if the unsolicited endorsement from a naïve but sincere and enthusiastic graduate student may have been considered in the decision to hire Millie.

Millie had a large impact on MIT from the day she arrived.  Her first class at MIT was called Physics of Materials, and I had the privilege of being her Teaching Assistant.  Millie’s reputation preceded her, and 40 students took the class.  The subject matter was drawn from Millie’s research into energy band structure of graphite and graphite intercalation compounds and from the research she was doing together with Gene on optical properties of silicon.  The homework problems were mini-research projects, and the buzz among my fellow students was about the subtleties required to solve the current problem set. I recall one debate among students on the validity of calculating of optical transition matrix elements from the curvature of the energy bands in silicon in order to predict optical absorption.  My colleagues were infected by Millie’s enthusiasm for physics of materials as I had been.  To this day, many of my fellow students proudly include in their informal resumes that they are alumni of Millie’s first class.  Pete Staecker, who is here in the audience, was one of those alumni.  Another of my fellow students, Bob Hewes, told me recently that this was the best class he ever took.  Another colleague, Bob Brodersen, told me that he took the course twice! I'm not sure if he took it twice for credit. I said, “Bob, are you sure you weren't a teaching assistant?” He said, “No, no. I took it twice!”

In the intervening 50 years, Millie’s fame as grown, and her accolades have accumulated.  Over 100 graduate students have experienced the good fortune to be advised by Millie, and many hundreds more have been influenced by her personal magnetism.  But her enduring legacy is that, through it all, she remained a caring human being. As her fame grew, she remained modest and unassuming and generous with her time.  She remained “just Millie”, as I fondly remember her from the 1960’s.

Photo credit: Gene Dresselhaus
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