MAKERS Profile

Mildred Dresselhaus

Queen of Carbon Science

In this video

Dr. Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus discusses getting into physics at a time when there were very few women in the field, her groundbreaking carbon research, and the enticing "endless frontier" of science.

Mildred Dresselhaus passed away at the age of 86 on February 20, 2017. Prior to her passing, she spoke with MAKERS about her career as a scientist. Known as the "queen of carbon science," Mildred Dresselhaus was a pioneer in nanoscience and a strong advocate of bringing more women into STEM.

Born in New York on November 11, 1930, Dresselhaus originally planned to become a teacher. After receiving her bachelor's degree from Hunter College in 1951 and later continuing her studies at Cambridge University as a Fulbright Fellow, she was encouraged by Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow to pursue physics. This change of direction led her to earn her Master's degree from Radcliffe College and later her PhD from the University of Chicago, where she was mentored by the world-renown physicist Enrico Fermi.

In 1960, Dresselhaus began working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she stayed for 57 years. During her time there, she worked in different positions at the Solid State Division of Lincoln Laboratory and the Department of Electrical Engineering, eventually becoming a member of the electrical engineering faculty in 1968. There, Dresselhaus became the first female professor at MIT to hold a full, tenured position and helped organize the school's first Women's Forum.

Outside of MIT, Dresselhaus served as the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy; president of the American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science; chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics; and treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences.  

Throughout her successful career, Dresselhaus became a woman of many firsts, receiving the first solo Kavli Prize and becoming the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering. She is also the winner of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Honor and the co-author of eight books and approximately 1,700 papers.