Millie, MIT, and Learning to Cook

James C. Tsang gives a speech on how Millie mentored him in carbon and in cooking... and on how MIT has changed over time.
by James C. Tsang
Updated Jun 13, 2018 (1 Older Version)chevron-down
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Millie, MIT, and Learning to Cook
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James C. Tsang
Unveiling Ceremony Speech

Photo credit: Paul McGrath
Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Mount Auburn Cemetery, where we stand today, was founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It combined two “designs”, a garden for the promotion of scientific horticulture and the establishment of a “retired and ornamental place of sculpture.” This merger of science and art is very right for Millie.

I want to say a few words about her teaching, her mentoring, and how MIT changed during her time.

My MIT undergraduate class just had its 50th reunion and it has been a half century since I met Millie when she helped teach the then new Course VI and III graduate solid state physics sequence. Millie came to the campus in 1967 from Lincoln “to teach solid state physics to the EE’s.” Millie said that some future EE colleagues had doubts about her fit on the campus although others including Louis Smullin and George Pratt, were very supportive.

Millie teaches a class at MIT.  Photo courtesy of MIT
Millie teaches a class at MIT. Photo courtesy of MIT

From the beginning, she was an exceptional teacher. Like all MIT faculty, she knew her subject; like most she was confident in her knowledge; like some, she was prepared to spend the time to help students learn it. She taught to challenge the gifted while making sure the rest of us didn’t get left behind. She believed in the practical value of solid state physics for her students in 1967, and also its intellectual value showing how science can learn about real systems. She was a charismatic teacher for whom teaching was a calling. Her only peer as an MIT EE professor in my Course VI generation was Amar Bose, who taught the first course we took, 6.01-2. Millie and Bose provided their students solid foundations for their careers. The institute can have very fine professors.

Millie entertains students at her home.  Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family
Millie entertains students at her home. Photo courtesy of the Dresselhaus Family

Millie was the PhD adviser to about 75 students and a mentor to many post-docs and visitors. The qualities that characterized her teaching applied to her advising. She also knew her students were not parts to be manufactured. She knew we were “all different.” She once remarked that training graduate students was similar to raising small children. They were very dependent at the start, grew in different ways and went through a phase where they thought the parent or adviser knew nothing. She demonstrated to us by example of making the most of our time. Trivially, for me this included telling her what was going on in the lab as we walked at the end of the day from her office to her car. More substantially, she had an encyclopedic knowledge of what other students were doing, who was finishing, leaving orphaned equipment and samples, and the new opportunities these offered. She was happy to indulge her students odd interests — when I decided to learn to cook, she let me help cook her student parties. When I wanted to roast a suckling pig, she got me one from her butcher. I went to her house on Saturday and the pig was in the trunk of their car.

Major changes occurred at MIT during her 50 years on campus. Last June 9, going to my class reunion before commencement, I saw happy graduates streaming to the robing, a century old Cambridge scene. But, 50 years ago, this scene was very different. The class of '67, like its predecessors, was about 95% male, 95% Caucasian(+/-2%). It was reported that about 1960, the faculty considered dropping the admission of women to MIT. Today’s MIT student body almost looks like the world, and the quality is unchanged. Millie would tell you this was the result of many secular forces, of many individuals, that no single person made this change. Yet it happened on her watch, it was vital to her, and she was an important part of what made this change possible. She was a pioneer and a leader who made sure that others could and would follow.

Millie Dresselhaus was a first class intellect and a first class temperament. I was sad to learn of her passing, glad to have been her student and been able to call her “Millie” for almost 50 years.

Jim Tsang, Millie, and Francie Vecchi at a group party. Photo credit: Marianne Dresselhaus Cooper
Jim Tsang, Millie, and Francie Vecchi at a group party. Photo credit: Marianne Dresselhaus Cooper


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