Mildred Dresselhaus has proved herself to be a triple-threat since her entrance into the world of science. While being a physicist who has studied within the fields of material science and electrical engineering, she is most popular for her dedicated promotions for women within all science and engineering fields as well as for her own studies within the field of magneto-optics. These studies have since led the professional world into dubbing her as “the queen of carbon” science. Dr. Dresselhaus is currently an Institute Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics at MIT.
Growing up during the Great Depression in the Bronx, NY, Dr. Dresselhaus found the niche of her early years in music. She used music as an outlet to express her innate creative abilities and her love for sound eventually led her to enroll in the Hunter College High School (HCHS) for girls at age 13 where she was able to stray from the echelon of middle class America while in search of a more desired education. After graduating from HCHS she attended Hunter College where she became the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University for one year, from 1951-1952. In 1953, Dr. Dresselhaus received her master’s degree from Radcliffe College and then her PhD from the University of Chicago five years later.
Her MIT career began at the Lincoln Laboratory where she became a present staff member and it was during this team when she switched her research focus from superconductivity to magneto-optics. Studies within magneto-optics led Dr. Dresselhaus towards a better and more knowledgeable understanding of the electronic structure of semi-metals through laser experiments performed on carbon.
Along with Ali Javan, Dr. Dresselhaus and their joint student, Paul Schroeder, used a helium-neon laser that emitted circularly polarized light in order to create an updated model for graphite’s electronic structural make up in. These studies were carried out in 1968 and eventually became the forefront of a light scattering technique known as Raman Spectroscopy.
In 1973, Dr. Dresselhaus was the recipient of a Carnegie Foundation grant which enabled her to further promote the participation and incorporation of women in male dominated fields, such as science and engineering. That same year she was also appointed to the Abby Rockefeller Mauze chair in support of women in related STEM fields. Two years after becoming a visiting professor of physics at MIT in 1983, Dr. Dresselhaus accepted the role institute professor thus labeling her as the first female institute professor at MIT.
More recent awards and honors accepted by Dr. Dresselhaus include the 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the 2013 Arthur R. Von Hippel Award presented by the Material Research Society, the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom presented at the White House by President Obama, and the 2015 IEEE Medal of Honor.
Today, Dr. Dresselhaus is credited as being a historical figure whose studies have led to major breakthroughs in modern electronic technology. She even continues to inspire other women to pursue studies within various science and engineering careers, including physics, through her encouraging words, gracious smile, and kind demeanor.