by Adam Tseng
Mildred Dresselhaus’s story is not just a story of carbon physics, but also a testament to the potential of women in STEM.
Dresselhaus was born on November 11, 1930 in a low-income family in New York City. Though she went to school in a rough, underprivileged district, she was not fazed. She studied hard and took up lessons in violin, which were free because her brother had been taking them as well. In music school, she met more affluent children and their parents, learning about Hunter College High School, which was one of the only schools with high academic standing in the area. After gaining admission and excelling in the school, she was accepted into Hunter College. At this point, she was set on becoming a teacher, which at the time was a very common path for educated women.
At Hunter College, she took a course in physics from Rosalyn Yalow, who would eventually win a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. She encouraged Dresselhaus to pursue physics and took her under her wing. This marked a turning point not only because Dresselhaus chose to step into the path of physics, but because she gained a lifelong mentor. Yalow gave important advice to Dresselhaus about which schools to apply to and wrote decisive recommendations for her to up her chances of admission. This helped her earn a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she studied for one year before completing her second year at Harvard. It is no exaggeration to say that having Rosalyn Yalow as a mentor significantly aided Mildred Dresselhaus on her journey to greatness.
Next, Dresselhaus enrolled in graduate physics at the University of Chicago, where she was under the tutelage of famous physicist Enrico Fermi for one year. Though it was brief, she not only learned how to think like a quantum physicist, but also developed a strong relationship with him and his family. Dresselhaus went on to pursue research on microwave properties of superconductors in magnetic fields. During her research, she reported an anomaly that contradicted the prevailing Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory on superconductivity in 1958, earning the respect and attention of those three scientists who further aided her in her career.
After marrying Gene Dresselhaus in the same year, she began independent work in the Lincoln Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studying the electronic structure of semimetals such as graphite. Through tenacious research, she provided both an accurate characterization of carbon’s electronic band structure and helped discover new carbon materials such as buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” for short, which is now used to fight motor function deterioration due to multiple sclerosis. Because of this extensive and groundbreaking work on carbon, she earned the nickname the “Queen of Carbon.”
Perhaps just as important as Dresselhaus’s discoveries and research was her role as a trailblazer for women in STEM. While Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin may have been responsible for some of science’s greatest discoveries, Dresselhaus showed ordinary women that anyone could become successful in STEM. After all, Dresselhaus had gone from a lower-class family in the Bronx to the Lincoln Lab in MIT. She was aware of her status as an inspiration to women, and acted on it by co-founding the Women’s Forum in 1970 to discuss topics relevant to women in the workforce. She also instilled determination and empowerment in her students, many of which were female. Thus, Mildred Dresselhaus should not only be remembered for her academic work, but also for inspiring, motivating, and nurturing the female science greats of tomorrow.
“Faculty.” MIT, web.mit.edu/physics/people/inremembrance/dresselhaus_mildred.html.
“Mildred S. Dresselhaus.” The Franklin Institute, 4 May 2017, www.fi.edu/laureates/mildred-s
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