As Mildred Dresselhaus, the so-called "Queen of Carbon," welcomed me to her realm, I was taken aback by the number of awards casually jumbled together with books and knickknacks in her crowded office. Gifts from friends and dusty manuscripts almost obscured the impressive collection of prizes from a long and lauded career, including the National Medal of Science, the Kavli Prize and the Oersted Medal.
Dresselhaus earned the royal nickname through her definitive research on carbon, particularly her work on superconductivity and carbon nanotubes. Her early life, however, was far from regal.
"My background is so improbable—that I'd be here from where I started," she said. "When [my parents] got married at the end of 1926, it was just as the Depression was about to start. It was a time when immigrants couldn't find work. But we had FDR, and he figured out that people who had nothing to eat needed help from the government. So we were a family like that."
Dresselhaus' childhood may have been humble, but she learned to take full advantage of the opportunities that did come her way. The daughter of Polish and Austro-Hungarian immigrants, she worked for her schooling with odd tutoring jobs. At a time when the ambitions of intelligent women were hindered by social and economic constraints, Dresselhaus was able to follow her older brother into the broader world of academia.
"I got to know New York at two levels. In my youth I learned about the grungy part and what it was like to grow up in the slums. And to go to schools where you learn nothing," she said. "But I also had this brother who was a prodigy, both academically and in music. He got a violin scholarship when he was four years old. That introduced us to music school, and music school introduced us to middle-class kids who actually went to school to learn something. The influence on me was that I found there was something to learn, and if you did that, you lived a lot better than people I knew."
It was at the women's-only Hunter College High School that Dresselhaus was briefly taught by a future Nobel laureate, the medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow, who encouraged her to pursue a career in the sciences. Yalow herself had earned a teaching-assistant position in the physics department at the University of Illinois in 1941, and she was eager to support other talented women whom she believed had the potential to break into traditionally male-dominated fields.
Dresselhaus followed her graduation from Hunter with a Fulbright Fellowship to Cambridge University in England, eventually earning her master's degree from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. It was during her doctoral work at the University of Chicago that she met the famous physicist Enrico Fermi, who happened to take the same route she did to and from campus and with whom she shared her ideas for her thesis on superconductivity. Chicago also was where she first met fellow physics student Gene Dresselhaus, whom she would marry in 1958, the same year she earned her Ph.D.
A few years later, both Dresselhauses took jobs at the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which at the time was a national magnetic field laboratory. Mildred had decided to focus on the less glamorous field of condensed matter physics while at Chicago, for reasons both professional and personal.
"I couldn't see myself traveling around the world finding facilities, running after accelerators. I foresaw that kind of life, living out of a suitcase, and it didn't appeal to me. That's why I went into condensed matter. It was a practical thing for me," she said. "I have another side of me, I have a family and four children, so that kept me busy and organized. I couldn't afford to waste time."
Dresselhaus' output has been prodigious. Her work has ranged from early research on the relationship between superconductivity and magnetic fields to thermoelectricity. Her research inspired the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of buckminsterfullerene spherical molecules and carbon nanotubes.
In 1984 she was president of the American Physical Society, and in 1998 she was president of AAAS. She worked for the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton, and taught over 60 Ph.D. students through her work at MIT. More recently, her team at MIT has researched bismuth nanowires, and she completed a textbook on the use of group theory in condensed matter physics with her Brazilian colleague Ado Jorio.
"You can see from my career I had to change a few times, in very different directions for very different reasons," she said. "I like changing things. I have another thing that changes my career. So I get an award and I read the citation, and I say, 'You know, I haven't really done all that they say, so now I have to do it.' That's another motivator for me. It makes me conscious that I haven't quite earned, at least to my satisfaction, what people think I've done."