(Image Credit: https://www.fortomorrow.eu/en/for-you)
When she sought out her PhD thesis advisor at the University of Chicago, he basically told her to get lost. The man was under the firm conviction that women had no place in Science. Another condescending and misogynistic faculty member asserted that neither she nor any other woman would ever teach his engineering students. When she offered to fill in the vacancy created by a Professor teaching a course on electromagnetic theory at Cornell University, the faculty met on a daily basis for a whole week to decide whether the young men in the classroom would pay attention to her, this notwithstanding the fact that she possessed a set of stellar academic credentials which few others could lay claim to. She took a sum total of five days away from work following the birth of three sons and within an hour of delivering one of the three kids, she was back at her laboratory with her newborn in tow.
Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus, succeeded in not just bucking the rotten ‘establishment’ trends of her time. She also carved out an indelible niche of her own. She left behind an enduring legacy that represented the contrails of some of most seminal discoveries dotting the extremely specialised and complex sphere of nanotechnology. She spent a greater part of her life fighting for the empowerment of women in science and established numerous Forums that would enhance their creative abilities. At the time of her death on the 20th of February 2017, only the Nobel Prize eluded her, and as many would opine, unfairly so. She had bagged the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom, The National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award, the Vannevar Bush Award, the IEEE Medal of Honour and the Kavli Prize. All of these in addition to the forty honorary doctorates which she received from various institutions.
Deputy Editor at MIT news, author and producer of science and children’s media, Maia Weinstock pays endearing homage to the productive life and intriguing times of Millie Dresselhaus in the upcoming book “Carbon Queen”. The title is a reference to the moniker which Millie earned for her pioneering research involving the properties and potential of Carbon. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, Millie showed prodigious talent both with the violin and her studies. Braving the ravages of Depression and the consequent poverty, Millie graduated from the Hunter College in New York.
Unlike Sir Issac Newton, Millie did not have the advantage of standing on the shoulders of giants to pursue her interests. While the number of giants doing research in the field of carbon was sparse, very few shoulders were offered as a pedestal for Millie to stand on, on account of her gender. The shoulders that lent succour however, made all the difference to the life and fortunes of Millie. Gene Dresselhaus, a brilliant physicist in his own right, not only collaborated extensively with Millie in her research but also ended up marrying her and taking a backseat to work in her shadows. A rare exception to the prevailing mores, Gene was to Millie what Max Planck was to the brilliant scientist Lise Meitner. A steady and benevolent influence, Gene was a rock against which Millie leant on frequently, respectfully and liberally throughout her most productive research years.
Donning the epaulets of an insatiably curious scientist, Millie was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Employing scientific techniques that was way beyond her time, she upended the magnificently curious word of Carbon. Unearthing some fundamental properties of this ubiquitous element, Millie was the first scientist to have the prescience about the existence of nanotubes. Millie also laid the foundation for advanced research at the level of a nanoscale – using structures on the order of one-hundred thousandth the width of a human hair. In fact at one point in time, there were only three papers written in the domain of carbon research and all three were authored by Millie. Over her professional career, she authored or co-authored a dizzying 1,700 research papers and 8 books.
However the greatest achievement of this incandescent powerhouse, was her resoluteness in obliterating the plague of under representation of women in Science. Millie established the MIT Women’s Forum that analysed and evaluated the plight of women. As MIT professor of mechanical engineering Gang Chen once famously wrote for the MIT Technology Review, “at MIT, there are many Jedi knights, but Millie stands out as our Yoda….Warm and open, she is always receptive, ready to work and willing to help”.
Just before Millie died, General Electric requested the genius to feature in a sixty second commercial. The underlying theme of the commercial was questioning “what of notable women in science were treated as celebrities with the same cachet as professional athletes, pop starts and Hollywood actors?” This commercial had Millie being extolled for her intellect and humanity. There were Millie dolls and “Millie Days” and paparazzi hounding her wherever she went. This was part of GE’s initiative to expand the women employee number to 20,000 across GE companies spread around the world. Unfortunately Millie did not live to see the commercial that became a monster hit. She passed away peacefully following a stroke. She was eighty six.
Interested readers can watch the advertisement here:
Andrew Werner Lawson the stonehearted PhD advisor who showed scant respect to Millie during her student days acknowledged his bias and prejudice many years later and even organised a grand symposium where he requested Millie to deliver a grand lecture. Maybe he was racked by a guilt syndrome which he wanted to get off his back; or perhaps he developed a conscience in spontaneity; or he may just have wanted to feed off the glory of a woman who had the last laugh. Either way Millie’s magnanimity and character would not have spent even a single minute dwelling on the reasons. As Millie herself said recounting the apologia of Lawson, “I thought that was very gracious of him.”
“Carbon Queen” – for the ages!
(Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus by Maia Weinstock is published by the MIT Press and will be available for sale from the 1st of March, 2022)