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Mildred S. Dresselhaus

Mildred S. DresselhausMildred Dresselhaus was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in a poor section of the Bronx. She went to the New York City public schools through junior high school. She then went to Hunter College High School in New York City. She continued with her education at Hunter College in New York City. She was a Fulbright Fellow at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University in 1951-52. Next, she got her master's degree at Radcliffe in 1953 and continued on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1958. Her thesis was on "The Microwave Surface Impedance of a Superconductor in a Magnetic Field." At the University of Chicago she came into contact with Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicists of the 20th century.

The "survival" tactics that helped propel her to success were honed in her earliest years; raised in poverty, she learned as a child to protect herself against daily intimidation in a tough New York neighborhood. Mildred started out in college planning to go into elementary school teaching. When she was a sophomore at Hunter College, Mildred met Rosalyn Yalow, who taught her physics and later became a Nobel Laureate in medicine (1977). It was in part due to her interactions with Rosalyn Yalow that Mildred recognized her potential as a physicist and developed higher goals for herself. Also coming from a disadvantaged background, Yalow encouraged the young undergraduate to press ahead despite detractors, taught her to recognize and seize opportunity, and followed her career as it unfolded with "advice and love".

Millie (as she is best known) moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to complete her NSF sponsored Post-Doctoral fellowship where she continued her studies on superconductivity. After her post-doctorate days were over, she and her husband moved to the Boston area where they both got jobs at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. Millie and physicist Gene F. Dresselhaus both worked at Lincoln Labs for the next 7 years. At the Lincoln Laboratory, she switched from research on superconductivity to magneto-optics, and carried out a series of experiments, that led to a fundamental understanding of the electronic structure of semimetals, especially graphite. With four young children, in 1967 she was invited by Louis Smullin, head of the Electrical Engineering Department, to come to MIT and be a visiting professor for a year. She was so enthusiastic about teaching undergraduates and graduate students, and about working with graduate students on research projects, that she was in 1968 appointed as a tenured full professor.

She has remained ever since on the MIT faculty, pursuing an intense research and teaching career in the area of electronic materials. A leader in promoting opportunities for women in science and engineering, Dresselhaus received a Carnegie Foundation grant in 1973 to encourage women's study of traditionally male dominated fields, such as physics. In 1973, she was appointed to The Abby Rockefeller Mauze chair, an Institute-wide chair, endowed in support of the scholarship of women in science and engineering.

She has greatly enjoyed her career in science. As Millie says about working with MIT students, "I like to be challenged. I welcome the hard questions and having to come up with good explanations on the spot. That's an experience I really enjoy." She has over her career graduated over 60 PhD students and has given many invited lectures all over the US and worldwide on her research work. Her recent research interests have been on little tiny things, which go under the name of nanostructures, carbon nanotubes, bismuth nanowires and low dimensional thermoelectricity.

Awards received recently include:

  • Karl T. Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics, American Institute of Physics, 2001;
  • Medal of Achievement in Carbon Science and Technology, American Cabon Society, 2001;
  • Honorary Member of the Ioffe Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2000;
  • National Materials Advancement Award of the Federation of Materials Societies, 2000;
  • 19 honorary doctorate degrees;
  • Nicholson Medal, American Physical Society, March 2000;
  • Weizmann Institute's Millennial Lifetime Achievement Award, June 2000.

She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.

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