Forging Pathways

Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper, Millie's granddaughter, recounts how Millie helped her forge pathways to her future.
by Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper
Updated Jun 13, 2018 (1 Older Version)chevron-down
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Forging Pathways
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Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper
Closing Session, MIT Memorial

Photo Credit: Geof Cooper
Photo Credit: Geof Cooper

I have a few final words to close this session and to close today. But first, I'd like to thank everyone for this symposium.

Thank you all for coming — I know that many of you have traveled a very long way to be here, today, and, as Millie's family, we all thank you all for coming to honor Millie. On behalf of the family, I'd also like to thank MIT — which is a very, very special place for our family, and in fact, really helped Millie to become the person that she was — for hosting this wonderful symposium and for hosting Millie for her whole life.

I'd also like to thank our sponsors: the Department of EECS, or Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; the Department of Physics; the MTL Center for Graphene Devices and 2D Systems; the Office of the Provost; the Research Laboratory of Electronics, or RLE; the School of Engineering; and the Solid State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center or S3Tech.  Thank you all for making this event possible.

And finally, I'd like to thank the organizing committee for including us family members in the planning of this event and also for doing such a great job with this. It has been an honor and a privilege to participate in this symposium honoring Millie's life, and it’s been inspiring, getting to meet so many of you, with whom she worked closely.

Now, as a family, we thank all of you. But, of course, remember that Millie's family extended very far beyond just her “blood relatives.” As her colleagues, her students, her collaborators, and her friends, you were all a part of Millie's family, and don't you ever forget that.

So now I'll end this session by reminding you — as many of the other speakers have done — of the image of Millie and Enrico Fermi walking together. Remembering the value of her walks with Enrico Fermi, Millie always used to walk slowly so that she could walk with all of us. When Millie walked with us, we didn't walk along a road; we took a path.

Now, before we dive into the speech, let's slow down and make sure we're all clear on the key terms, here. So — a ‘road.’ A road is simple. Roads are laid out for us, and we just follow them wherever they go.

A ‘pathway.’ Pathways are a bit more complicated. Pathways have rocks and bumps. Sometimes, they're overgrown with weeds and hard to find. And, when they reach a mountain, sometimes they just go straight up, and they don't find the best or the easiest path up.

Some professors build roads. Millie helped us look inside ourselves and forge pathways.

For my part, I remember talking to Millie, one afternoon. I gave her an elaborate plan that I had thought of for an important women's event that had to happen. I told her, “Grandma, you need to set this up, because nobody's going to listen to me. I'm a nobody.”

She responded by saying, “If we only listen to a person who's already somebody, how do people become somebody?”

That forges a pathway.

So, by the end of the lunch, I sent an email, and I immediately heard back that the entire board wanted a meeting with me.

Pointing that out to me, Millie showed me a pathway that I didn't know I could take. That simple lesson has changed my life dramatically. But I know I'm not the only person that she's done this with.

Millie has done this with all of us.

She could send an email that would say exactly the right thing, or she would ask exactly the question that you really needed to hear. Or she could give a talk, and she would make an off-handed comment about some really cool experiment that if you did would totally make your career. Or she'd read your thesis, and she'd mark up the entire thing.

Even the references.

So pathways — we get pathways, now. Millie helped us find the pathways, in our lives, that we really needed. We understand that.

But, now, let's look at this a little differently.

When I first started as a graduate student at MIT, having Millie as a grandmother always seemed like my winning ticket. Of course, I told Millie that she wasn't allowed to tell anybody, at all, that we were related, and I kept our family connection as quiet as I possibly could. But knowing that Millie could bail me out, if I completely failed at things — I took risks that I would never have taken, otherwise.

When I found colleagues who were really struggling in their research or their classes, I would enthusiastically offer to help, even if I didn't understand the problem at all. If I couldn't help, I always knew I could just introduce them to Millie, and she'd bail me out. But, honestly, I was surprised to find that I rarely had to do that. I always did things that were on the pathways that I was forging, but knowing that Millie was around gave me the courage to actually take those pathways.

I'll use this example to define a new term for everyone. That courage that Millie gave me — that's what we'll call a ‘hidden pathway.’  Millie never said anything that taught me how to take risks. Her actions gave me the courage to take them, myself. In working with Millie, we all saw her do science and quietly lay out hidden pathways for each of us.

Think about a time, in your life, when you needed that extra little bit of courage to take the pathway that you wanted, and you thought of Millie and took the plunge. Now, remember a risk that you took because you knew that she could catch you, if it didn't work out. Now, think of a time when your research hit a snag, and when you were trying to find a really creative solution, and you thought of Millie, and you found your inspiration.

But what do we do, now that she's not here?

I don't know about all of you, but I don't feel like Millie's truly gone. I feel Millie in my work. I feel her excitement when I find something new, and I hear her encouragement when things get hard. The Millie that laid out pathways for me — she's gone. But the Millie that helped me find those hidden pathways, she's still around.  And that Millie is much stronger.

Now, it's my turn. Personally, after struggling at the beginning of grad school, I now hope to become a professor. I want to be able to have a really exciting time in science while still helping others to forge their own pathways. I saw a lot of these women's issues that Millie fought for, and I want to keep working to solve them, because, now, I really understand them. And in this political scene, right now, I see the need for scientists that can really be leaders.

Millie set me on a hidden pathway to becoming the scientist that I always wanted to become. She showed me my passion for science and teaching, but she also showed me how to face a problem and how to really fight for it.

Not all of you are teachers, but Millie left hidden pathways for all of us. Today, we're taking a time-out to remember the Millie who helped us forge pathways, but soon we'll be back in the thick of things.

When you're back in your busy life, you'll find Millie, if you look for her. The Millie that leaves these hidden pathways, she'll be there guiding you. She'll help you to find the strength to finish writing that grant, or she'll help you to stand up for someone who really needs to be heard, or she'll help you to lobby on Capitol Hill for some sort of science legislation that really needs to get passed.

And with those hidden pathways, we'll be able to continue the legacy that Millie started. For her whole life, Millie found these hidden pathways from her mentor, Enrico Fermi. For our lives, we will continue to find hidden pathways that Millie left for us.

And we will all leave pathways — hidden and normal — for the people that we mentor. Being a third generation in Millie's scientific family has been really powerful for all of us. So let's make sure to walk with that next generation. Let's make sure to continue what Millie started.

Thank you all.

Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper forges her own pathway, in her grandmother's office.  Photo credit: Shoshi Cooper
Leora Dresselhaus-Cooper forges her own pathway, in her grandmother's office. Photo credit: Shoshi Cooper
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