[Image above] Millie Dresselhaus, MIT professor emerita, died Monday, February 21. Credit: GE; YouTube
Time is a one-way street, and sooner or later, we all come to the end of our street. A remarkable woman, Millie Dresselhaus, ran out of road on February 21 at the age of 86.
Dresselhaus was extraordinary by all measures and highly admired by all who worked with her—as a scientist, as a mentor, and as a trailblazer for women in science. She was on the faculty of MIT for 50 years and has been nicknamed by the community as the “queen of carbon science.”
Dresselhaus’s career is a study in adaptability and being open to opportunity.
Born to Polish immigrants in 1930, she was raised in the Bronx borough of New York City. She grew up, as she says, “on the wrong side of the tracks,” with little guidance regarding career tracks for women. However, her musical accomplishments led to the opportunity to attend Hunter College High School for Intellectually Gifted Young Ladies in New York. This was her first introduction to the power of meritocracy, a theme that provided an anchoring basso continuo throughout her career.
Moving on to Hunter College, she earned her undergraduate degree in physics. Aided by the advice of another trailblazing female physicist, Rosalyn Yalow, Dresselhaus passed on the recommended teaching career and pursued a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, followed by a postdoctoral position at Cornell University. (See MIT’s website for full details of her career.)
In the book “Successful Women Ceramic and Glass Scientists and Engineers,” by Lynnette Madsen, Dresselhaus writes, “Being told at Cornell that there was a limited future for me in science pointed me to give high priority to institutions emphasizing meritocracy, and this resulted in my coming to MIT in 1960, where actual accomplishment rather than what you looked like was what mattered.”
She saw being a woman in a male-dominated field as a challenge and an opportunity, but more strongly the latter. Reflecting on this in Madsen’s book, she wrote, “If the research field and institution of employment emphasize meritocracy, then many of the barriers associated with being a minority are lowered, and evaluation emphasized achievement rather than preconceived expectations. The advantage of being a woman in my field is that there are so few of us, especially in my age group, so my achievements are more noticed. This has in fact been a big advantage for me in my career.” (Read the entire profile here.)
And there has been plenty of recognition of her achievements over the years. Dresselhaus was MIT’s first full, tenured female professor. She was the first sole recipient of the prestigious Kavli Prize, the first woman to receive the National Medal of Science in Engineering, and also the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The list of distinctions is extensive.
Dresselhaus understood her unique situation as a woman scientist and worked to make her extraordinary story one that could become ordinary for young women. She was deeply committed to promoting gender equity in science and engineering—the meritocracy theme, again—and led many efforts to promote STEM careers.
One of those efforts will live on long beyond her years. Inspired by her and others like her, GE has committed to expanding its female STEM workforce to 20,000 by 2020. Just a few weeks ago, GE published a charming video starring Dresselhaus that asks the question, “What if scientists were celebrities?” The video imagines elementary school age girls cheering with delight on receiving a Millie doll at a birthday party, middle-school age girls dressing up as Millie for Halloween, strangers stopping Millie on a street for a celebrity-selfie, etc. Dresselhaus appears to graciously embrace the adulation, not for herself, but for what her success offers future generations.
She is heavily invested in future generations. She and her husband, Gene Dresselhaus (also a physicist) have four children and five grandchildren. Dresselhaus supervised more than 60 doctoral students during her long academic career and taught thousands who took her classes.
The GE video gives you a sense of the charm, intelligence, and generosity with which Millie Dresselhaus lived her life. Her legacy will endure long beyond the life she left on February 21.
Credit: General Electric; YouTube