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  • Sara Thompson

Mildred Dresselhaus: The Queen of Carbon

By Sara Thompson

Image credit U.S. Department of Energy, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Special to the Enterprise

Mildred Spiewak was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930. She attributes her love of science to her frequent visits to free museums around her neighborhood. She earned a little pocket money by tutoring students throughout grade school, contributing to her family’s finances during the Great Depression. She continued tutoring while attending Hunter College High School. She then attended the traditionally all-women’s Hunter College, which opened enrollment to male students while she attended. In interviews she stated that many of her male classmates came to her for help and tutoring and because of that she never considered science to me a “man’s profession”. She graduated in 1951 with her undergraduate degree and continued her education until receiving her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1958. This is where she met and married her spouse, Gene Dresselhaus.

After a two-year postdoc position, she began working at the Lincoln Lab, part of MIT. Most of her research was on graphite, graphene, and carbon nanotubes. She looked at the superconductivity of the materials and their electronic structures. Her work gave her the nickname “The Queen of Carbon” and her early career directly impacted current developments in nanotechnology that involves carbon.

Not only was she a brilliant physicist, whose work is still relevant today, but she was also a strong advocate for women in science fields. In 1971, Dresselhaus and her colleagues organized the first women in science and engineering fair at MIT. In 1994, she and fifteen other women co-signed a letter to the Dean of MIT addressing gender discrimination.

Her scientific contributions and push for equality made her an excellent candidate for several awards including the National Medal of Science, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, first female recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor, to name a few of the many honors. Dresselhaus passed away in 2017 but continues to leave behind her legacy of carbon nanotubes, nanotechnology, and advocacy for more women in STEM.

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