Thoughts from and About Millie

Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA)


Millie — researcher who unlocked scientific mysteries and opened the door of opportunity for countless women.(a)


Advice and Influences

“Science stays fun and fresh because there are always new topics to study, new tools to use, great people to work with, and lots to learn. Science is endless. .... What will be next? There is so much left to do in science, and we need diverse ideas to make progress more quickly.”(c)

“Be yourself, and have confidence.”

photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family
photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family

“Have a very broad understanding of science, so you can take advantage of new science opportunities so that you can really serve society.”

“Talk to your budd[ies]… faculty, talk to your students. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll keep learning from them.”(b)



photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family
photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family


“In the beginning, the encouragement came from women…

[Nobelist] Rosalyn Yalow was always in my life, writing letters of recommendation for me, keeping up with my progress.

[My] first financial support came from philanthropist Abby Rockefeller Mauzé and her fund to help female professors in underrepresented fields.”(b)

“Fermi was like Professor Yalow in a couple of ways: He had very few students and took a personal interest in all of them... such a sharp mind. I learned how to think about physics from him.”(c)

[on women’s advancement] I was a great believer in the idea of a critical mass of female students.

With a minimum of 15% in each class, I thought the lack of isolation would be enough. The guys would get it and everything would change automatically. In the 1980s, we were coasting toward these numbers… men and women seemed to have equal chance of attaining tenure…

A decade later, [MIT Professor] Nancy Hopkins initiated her eye-opening study on the status of women at MIT. The data on pay scales, lab space, and other resources allotted to women showed how wrong I was. I thought numbers alone could stimulate a change in attitudes.(e)

I believe women can offer a slightly different perspective on scientific inquiry — with the potential to spark innovative approaches...and I genuinely enjoy mentoring other women scientists.(c)


Award Citations

“Dr. Dresselhaus worked to establish an environment for caring and support of women, while setting high standards of professional excellence.” – Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, 1977

Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family
Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family

“One of the most prominent physicists, materials scientists, and electrical engineers of her generation. … best known for deepening our understanding of condensed matter systems and the atomic properties of carbon, which has contributed to major advances in electronics and materials research.” — Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2014

“Paved the way for the rise of nanotechnology and blazed a path for women in science and engineering.” —EEE Medal of Honor 2016


A Few of her Accolades

“I write with love, respect and profound admiration to thank Mildred Dresselhaus for being, at first, someone whose image encouraged me to believe that I could be a scientist and also a wife and mother…and violinist, and then, as I grew to know her in real life, discovered she was also a kind, friendly, happy person who loved humanity as well as science. She was the image (the only one of such quality that I had known since Marie Curie!) that told me it was OK to try to do it all!

“I well remember how when I first heard/read about her love of violin, I decided it would be OK to love something as much as science…and then, as I was a grad student at MIT, and later a Member of the Corporation, I well recognized that her positions at the Lincoln Labs etc. meant she had no fears of participating in male power circles. And as a longtime Woods Hole summer resident I well learned that open, accessible friendliness…that, as well as her science, earned the admiration and love of all who met her. My fondest memory is of her carrying her violin to play, as she often did, in a quartet with my neighbor, in Woods Hole. Thank you for this opportunity to share my memories,...so precious to me.” — Dr. Cecily Cannon Selby, PhD ’50

Another pioneer in research and education. Dr. Selby wrote the 1983 NSF report, "Educating Americans for the 21st Century", with Millie, advocating more STEM education. One of the first women on the MIT Corporation, she is a former president of the New York Academy of Sciences.


Dr. Dresselhaus’s official C.V. lists 38 honorary doctorates, more than 70 awards and honors, and active participation in more than 90 studies and societies. She was co-inventor of seven patents. The “Queen of Carbon” received the 2012 Kavli Prize in nanoscience “for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures.”(e)

Millie in Dresden, 1990.  Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family
Millie in Dresden, 1990. Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family

“I met Millie on my interview for a faculty job in 1984. M.I.T. was quite intimidating then for a new female, but Millie made it all seem possible, even effortless. I knew it wouldn’t be, but she was such an approachable intellectual powerhouse, she made it seem that way.” — MIT Professor Lorna Gibson

Millie lectures at MIT.  Photo courtesy of Dresselhaus Family
Millie lectures at MIT. Photo courtesy of Dresselhaus Family

Email from Millie to Aviva Brecher ’68:

“…You had a big influence on me by encouraging me to contribute to women in science and engineering ever since you were a student in my solid state class more than 50 years ago. It was you who got me to hold Friday afternoon mentoring sessions for women students. These meetings were helpful in encouraging students.”

Email from Millie to Deborah Chung, PhD 77:

At the International Conference on Carbon in July 2016
At the International Conference on Carbon in July 2016


“Your thesis work is historical for me as an early work on a single graphene layer where intercalants were used to separate the layers. My nanoscience efforts went from… intercalation compounds to fullerenes after their discovery... the idea of stretching out fullerenes from C60 to… and making a tube that would be a single layer of carbon atoms in thickness.”


“I remember Millie as one of the very rare senior faculty women who hosted lunches for female junior faculty, giving us realistic advice and helpful support. She …was also welcoming to colleagues in humanities. Many of us remember Millie as a musician as well as a beacon to scholarly women, not only in science and engineering.” — MIT Professor Emerita Catherine Chvany

Millie at Argonne National Lab during a Meeting of the Board of Governors
Millie at Argonne National Lab during a Meeting of the Board of Governors

“Millie was on the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) Board of Governors and met with the ANL women in the 80's. She encouraged us to network with each other, and likely was the inspiration for the ANL WIST (Women In Science and Technology) program that has been ongoing for 27 years!

“Millie returned in 2011 on the advisory committee for a WIST proposal supported by ANL management. This led to several changes.” — Marion Thurnauer, Senior Scientist


Conclusion

Be a proud scientist/engineer and another advocate for women's access to careers in technology and science!

Millie gets the L'Oreal Women in Science Award, 2007. Photo credit: Shoshi Dresselhaus-Cooper
Millie gets the L'Oreal Women in Science Award, 2007. Photo credit: Shoshi Dresselhaus-Cooper

Acknowledgements

AMITA: Sarah Simon ’72, Sandra Yulke ’74, Bonny Kellermann ’72, and the many others who contributed comments on how important Millie was to them.


Notes:

(a) Heinz Award, 2012 <http://www.heinzawards.net/recipients/mildred-dresselhaus>

(b) Speech at Lehigh University <www1.lehigh.edu/news/lifetime-learning>

(c) C3E Lifetime Achievement Honorees <http://c3eawards.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/05/C3E_Five-Year-Anniversary-Book-2016.pdf>

(d) in “Carbon Catalyst”, Angier interview NYTimes 2-Jul, 2012

(e) Science Magazine, “Reflections of a woman pioneer” <www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/11/reflections-woman-pioneer>