Born during the Depression to a poor immigrant family, Mildred S. Dresselhaus possessed a natural intelligence and love of science that brought her recognition in the field of solid state physics. She has contributed a great deal of new knowledge about the electronic properties of many materials, particularly semimetals such as graphite, and was the recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1990. Dresselhaus is currently Institute Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences. Her public service includes work on behalf of the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation.
Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus was born on November 11, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York; her father was a journalist. As a child, she worked in sweatshops and factories to help with family expenses. At age eleven, she spent one year teaching a mentally retarded child how to read and write. In helping the child, she found her first insight into her future--in education. Dresselhaus' ambition then was to become an elementary school teacher. Her other love was music, and she and her talented brother received free violin lessons from philanthropic organizations which served as an introduction to the world of education.
Dresselhaus' parents encouraged her natural love of learning, and she studied diligently for an entrance exam for Hunter College High School--a girls' preparatory school associated with Hunter College in New York. She not only passed the exam, she did so with a perfect score in mathematics. Dresselhaus struggled at the school initially because her prior education was meager. She also had a difficult time socially among upper-middle-class schoolmates and their families. But her drive, intelligence and wit carried her through these early challenges. She excelled in high school and, with the help of a state scholarship, entered Hunter College, where she was graduated with highest honors in 1951. By that time, she was preparing for a career in physics.
Earns Scholarship to Cambridge
Dresselhaus then accepted a Fulbright Fellowship and performed graduate studies at Newnham, the women's college of Cambridge University. After returning from England, where she had benefitted from her studies as well as the new friendships she formed, she earned a master of science degree in physics from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. Upon her graduation from Radcliffe in 1953, Dresselhaus entered the prestigious doctoral program in physics at the University of Chicago. Solid state physics, the specialty which addresses matter in a condensed state, was in its infancy. The transistor had just been developed, and pioneers in the field were researching practical applications of semiconductors. In her graduate research, Dresselhaus explored the activities of superconductors. She found that some materials are excellent conductors of current at extremely low temperatures. She wrote two papers, "Magnetic Field Dependence of High-Frequency Penetration into a Super-Conductor" and "Magnetic Field Dependence of the Surface Impedance of Superconducting Tin," in 1958 and 1959, respectively, which were significant contributions to an area that few had begun to investigate.
Soon after receiving her doctorate degree, she married a colleague, solid state physicist Gene Dresselhaus. In 1958, she accepted a postdoctoral appointment as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Cornell University, while he became a junior faculty member there. Two years later, following the birth of her first child, Dresselhaus accepted a staff position at Lincoln Laboratory, a part of Massachusetts Institute of Technology that at that time specialized in semiconductors. Her husband also obtained a position there. Around that same time, a revolutionary development occurred in physics: the invention of integrated circuits, which would later be used in computers, automobile electronics, and entertainment systems. Dresselhaus began focusing on this area, examining the transport of electrons in high magnetic fields.
Studies Superconductors and Semimetals
While at Lincoln Laboratory, where she remained until 1967, Dresselhaus resumed her study of low temperature superconductors. She researched the behavior of various materials at temperatures as low as negative 250 degrees Celsius--the point at which hydrogen gas liquifies. She inquired into why semiconductors carry electricalcurrent at room temperature, and applied what she discovered to further study. Dresselhaus also embarked on a study of semimetals--materials such as arsenic and graphite. These semimetals were shown to have properties in common with semiconductors and even superconductors. Dresselhaus' work on the structure of graphite(a form of pure carbon) was extremely original and earned her the respect of her colleagues. Apart from her academic life, Dresselhaus had three more children during the 1960s.
Dresselhaus was named Abby Rockefeller Mauze Visiting Professor in 1967, and the following year received a full professorship at MIT. She served as Associate Department Head of Electrical Science and Engineering from 1972 to 1974, and Director of the Center of Material Science and Engineering from 1977 to 1983. In 1973, she became permanent holder of the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Chair, and in 1983, she was named Professor of Physics. Two years later, she was named Institute Professor, a lifetime honor conferred on no more than twelve active professors at MIT. Beginning in the 1980s she and her associates investigated the properties of carbon, finding it to harbor hollow clusters, each containing sixty atoms. Today scientists are experimenting with these clusters--known as Buckminster Fullerenes, or "Buckyballs," on account of their shape--for their potential use as a delivery system for drugs, and as an extremely strong form of wire tubing.
Champions Women in Science
The challenges Dresselhaus faced as a prominent physicist and mother of four children caused her to become an advocate of women scientists. When her children were small, she had met with a lack of support from her male colleagues, and as a result she worked with other female colleagues at MIT to expand the admission opportunities for women at the Institute. She also began a Women's Forum to explore solutions for difficulties faced by working women. Her initiative in this forum led to her appointment to the Committee on the Education and Employment of Women in Science and Engineering, part of the National Research Council's Commission on Human Resources.
Concurrent with her work at MIT, Dresselhaus has held numerous advisory and service positions. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Executive Committee of Physics and Math Sciences from 1975 to 1978. She chaired the Steering Committee Evaluation Panels of the National Bureau of Standards from 1978 to 1983. She served as President of the American Physical Society in 1984. She chaired the English Section of the National Academy of Sciences from 1987 to 1990, and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, as well as a senior member of the Society of Women Engineers.
Dresselhaus has received many honors. In 1977, she received the Society of Women Engineers Annual Achievement Award "for significant contributions in teaching and research in solid state electronics and materials engineering." In addition, she was a visiting Professor at the University of Campinas in Brazil in 1971, and at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. She also was Hund-Klemm Lecturer at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, and received the Ann Achievement Award from the English Societies of New England, both in 1988. In 1990, Dresselhaus was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science.
Her lifetime of achievements in the field of solid state physics might have surprised some who knew of her early circumstances, but Dresselhaus has no regrets. "All the hardships I encountered," she has said, as quoted in Iris Noble's Contemporary Women Scientists of America, "provided me with the determination, capacity for hard work, efficiency, and a positive outlook on life that have been so helpful to me in realizing my professional career."
Selected Writings by DresselhausBooks
- (With Gene Dresselhaus, K. Sugihara, I. L. Spain, and H. A. Goldberg) Graphite Fibers and Filaments. Springer-Verlag (Berlin), 1988.
- (With G. Dresselhaus and P. C. Eklund) Physical Properties of Fullerenes. Academic Press, 1993.
- Noble, Iris. Contemporary Women Scientists of America. Julian Messner, pp. 138-51.
- Lear's( March 1994): 56-61, 82-83.