Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dr. Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus of MIT -- A Truly Inspiring Role Model

Some of you may have had the honor and privilege of meeting Dr. Mildred "Millie" Dressehaus of MIT, who is known as the Queen of Carbon for her outstanding research, is the recipient of the 2012 $1 million Kavli Prize as a Nanoscience Laureate, and has been awarded the National Medal of Science, among numerous other awards and honorifics.

She is also a truly outstanding human being and role model for females and males, alike -- and, I might add, also the mother of 4 children and a grandmother of 5.

At age 81, she still comes into her office at MIT to conduct research and to do her work.

I periodically write about inspiring people on this blog, because, as an educator, I believe that we can all learn from those who have been not only trailblazers but also have interesting life stories that demonstrate how one can overcome obstacles and, through hard work and passion, achieve great things.

Natalie Angier, in a wonderful column in today's Science section of The New York Times, "Carbon Catalyst for Half a Century," writes about Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, and, in an engaging interview, captures some of the remarkable aspects of her childhood, education, and scientific career.

Dresselhaus was born in the US and  is of Polish heritage. Since I speak Ukrainian, I can translate her maiden name "Spiewak," which means "singer," so, not surprisingly, she was talented in music, as the article notes, as was her brother. As a 6 year old, she took the subway from the Bronx to Greenwich Village (imagine  having a child do that today), with her violin and books since she had received a scholarship to a school there. She feared coming back home since the neighborhood was not considered to be safe. Her family was very poor and she often went without food and had a single set of clothing.

 I used to take the subway from the Bronx to the East Village, on the lower east side of Manhattan, for piano lessons, and would return at night, but would usually go with a friend, who also was going for her piano lessons.

She ended up at Hunter High School and went on the Hunter College, where her mentor there was Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, the Nobel Laureate, who continued to be in her life and wrote letters of recommendation for her throughout her life. I wrote about Yalow in this blog when she passed away last year, because her story had also resonated with me.

I met Dr. "Millie" Dresselhaus when I was at MIT for two years. She would take part in get-togethers of female faculty. I was a Visiting Scholar and a Visiting Associate Professor, back then, funded first by a National Science Foundation Visiting Professorship for Women and then by what is known now at UMass Amherst as a Conti Fellowship. Millie, if I may, would usually bring her knitting with her to our female faculty meetings. Those of you in operations research may be reminded of Dr. Brenda Dietrich of IBM, who also is an avid knitter. Coincidentally, when Dresselhaus received her PhD in physics from the University of Chicago she and her husband, who also is a physicist (she says there were no nepotism rules at that time) both had offers from IBM and MIT.

For those of you who have been engaged in the discussions regarding Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent attention-grabbing article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All,"  Professor Dresselhaus' advice as to how she managed such a high-powered career and had 4 children:

1. A good husband is a vital part of it, somebody who understands what you're trying to do and encourages it.

2.  I also had a good baby sitter. She worked for me for 29 years.

Coincidentally, my husband also has a PhD in physics and is a faculty member in engineering.