Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mildred Dresselhaus

The Boston Globe recently profiled MIT engineering and physics professor Mildred Dresselhaus:

Dresselhaus, who in 1968 became the first female tenured professor in the engineering department at MIT, has dedicated her life to understanding the fundamental physical elements of carbon fibers and, more recently, carbon nanotubes and other nanostructures.

But just as important has been the obstacles she overcame as a woman in a field -- once and still -- dominated by men. For these contributions, Dresselhaus was honored late last month in Paris, where she was one of five women to receive L'Oreal-UNESCO's 2007 Women in Science Award. Colleagues say it was about time.
Attending college in the late 1940s, Dresselhaus assumed her career choices would be teacher, secretary, or nurse. Fortunately, one of her professors, the future Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow, encouraged her to become a scientist.
Yalow suggested that Dresselhaus go to graduate school. Dresselhaus listened, becoming a Fulbright Fellow in 1951 and going on to earn a master's in physics from Radcliffe College in 1953 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1958.
Being a woman - and a mother - at the male-dominated Lincoln Lab was difficult. Dresselhaus was harassed for arriving late or leaving early on account of her children. Most of her female colleagues eventually left, but Dresselhaus stuck it out, becoming one of the very few female professors at MIT at a time when the MIT student body was only 2% female.

Like so many other pioneering women scientists, she not only performed her own research but also took time to mentor both young women and men in the sciences.
In 1973 Dresselhaus received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to work on attracting women to male-dominated fields like physics. She went out of her way to mentor students, especially female students, although not exclusively. Marc Kastner , the current head of MIT's physics department, said Dresselhaus was one of his earliest mentors when he came to MIT as a young professor 34 years ago.

Eklund had similar memories. "The fact that she was a woman was just totally irrelevant," he said. "Maybe there was a glass ceiling for a lot of women. But there wasn't for Millie. She just had a way of doing business that transcended gender."
Dresselhaus has also served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), president of the American Physical Society, treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences, and director of the Department of Energy (DoE) Office of Science under Clinton.

More about Mildred Dresselhaus:
(via the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, photo from the LANL Daily News Bulletin)

Tags: ,