News your connection to The Boston Globe

Pioneering woman physicist, cited for her research, mentoring

It is a fine office, plenty big with lots of sunlight. But when you meet Mildred Dresselhaus here, what you notice first is the mess: piles of paperwork, heaps of reports to read or edit, and towering mounds of miscellaneous stuff stacked so high they dwarf the silver-haired MIT professor at her desk.

"Everybody loves this place," said Dresselhaus, an institute professor in MIT's electrical engineering and physics departments. "This is my little hole, in my little sea of paper that needs to be cleaned up. It's not what I want to do. But it's what I'm prone to do."

She figures the piles have been growing for two decades, and at 76, Dresselhaus is way too busy to deal with them: She's got students to meet, papers to write, and research to do.

Dresselhaus, who in 1968 became the first female tenured professor in the engineering department at MIT, has dedicated her life to understanding the fundamental physical elements of carbon fibers and, more recently, carbon nanotubes and other nanostructures.

But just as important has been the obstacles she overcame as a woman in a field -- once and still -- dominated by men. For these contributions, Dresselhaus was honored late last month in Paris, where she was one of five women to receive L'Oreal-UNESCO's 2007 Women in Science Award. Colleagues say it was about time.

"How can there be anybody better?" asked Peter Eklund , a physics professor at Pennsylvania State University who trained with Dresselhaus as a postdoctoral student in the 1970s and nominated her for the award. "I'm really happy for her. There can't be more than 10 women in the world right now of her stature in science."

Dresselhaus was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1930 and grew up poor in the Bronx, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Her brother was a musical prodigy, and she wasn't half bad herself. At age 4, she was playing the violin. "I learned to read music," she said, "before I learned to read script."

As she got older, Dresselhaus realized there were limitations to what a woman could do. When she enrolled at Hunter College in New York in the late 1940s, she figured she would have to become either a teacher, a secretary, or a nurse. "The choice was clear. Teaching was my thing," she said.

But Rosalyn Yalow , a professor at Hunter College who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1977, had other ideas for young Millie. Yalow suggested that Dresselhaus go to graduate school. Dresselhaus listened, becoming a Fulbright Fellow in 1951 and going on to earn a master's in physics from Radcliffe College in 1953 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1958.

She married Gene Dresselhaus, a fellow physicist whom she met while in Chicago, and by the time she was 33, they had four children. The children didn't exactly endear Dresselhaus to her bosses at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, where she was hired in 1960.

Dresselhaus recalls being harassed for being late or having to leave early on account of the children. "There were two women and 1,000 men on staff at Lincoln Lab at the time," she recalled. "The other woman had the same problem I did."

Her female colleague ultimately left, Dresselhaus recalled. But she stuck around, impressing men and women alike with her knowledge, work ethic, and dedication to her job, and in 1968 MIT's department of electrical engineering and computer science hired her as a professor.

There, once again, she was in the minority. Only 2 percent of the school's undergraduate student body was female in 1960, and there was just a handful of female professors. "All the women faculty could fit around a very small table," she said. But that was soon to change.

In 1973 Dresselhaus received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to work on attracting women to male-dominated fields like physics. She went out of her way to mentor students, especially female students, although not exclusively. Marc Kastner , the current head of MIT's physics department, said Dresselhaus was one of his earliest mentors when he came to MIT as a young professor 34 years ago.

Eklund had similar memories. "The fact that she was a woman was just totally irrelevant," he said. "Maybe there was a glass ceiling for a lot of women. But there wasn't for Millie. She just had a way of doing business that transcended gender."

Times have changed. MIT's student body is 44 percent female today, and female professors make up almost 20 percent of the institute's faculty.

But Dresselhaus's work -- both for women and in science -- is far from done. She is doing pioneering work in the understanding of carbon nanotubes -- tiny, incredibly strong, cylindrical structures that are used to make bicycles, flat-screen televisions, and pharmaceuticals.

Most days she's amid her beautiful mess before 6 a.m. She often works 12 hours and then scurries home to Arlington to play the violin or viola. And now she has a new task: She needs to find a way to spend the $100,000 grant that comes with the L'Oreal-UNESCO award.

"I want to try to do something for women in physics worldwide," she said. Asked what that will be exactly, Dresselhaus just smiled. "I don't know," she replied. "I'll figure it out."


Home: Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., now living in Arlington.

Family: Married to Gene Dresselhaus since 1958. They have four children and four grandchildren.

Women at MIT: Nai-Chang Yeh , who earned a PhD in physics from MIT in 1988 and later became the first tenured professor in California Institute of Technology's physics department, called Dresselhaus an inspiration. "She's still this one-of-a-kind role model," Yeh said. "She was successful, she was truly intelligent, and people respected her as a good physicist. Nobody thinks about this issue of gender and that's how the field should be."

On retiring: "I'm sort of retiring," Dresselhaus promises. "Eventually."