This post is based on a piece which originally appeared at Let’s Talk About Science.
To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging about women in science, I wanted to tell you all about Mildred Dresselhaus, the MIT physics professor and giant of nanoscience sometimes known as ‘the queen of carbon’. For the last twenty years or so, materials made from carbon have been getting exponentially more and more attention. Carbon is an essential building block in many of the chemicals that are important for life, but there are also huge differences between materials made from carbon depending on how the carbon is bonded. Diamonds and coal are both forms of carbon, but with wildly different crystal structure. So many of the hot carbon materials from recent years have come from new ways that the carbon atoms can be arranged. For example, carbon nanotubes are like rolled up sheets of carbon, and graphene is a sheet of carbon that’s only one atom thick. Both carbon nanotubes and graphene have very high mechanical strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, and low permeability for their size. And there are a lot of other ways carbon can be nanostructured, collectively referred to as allotropes of carbon.
But Dresselhaus was into carbon before it was cool, and has been a professor at MIT since the 60s studying the physics of carbon materials. Her work has focused on the thermal and electrical properties of nanomaterials, and the way in which energy dissipation is different in nanostructured carbon. Her early work focused on difficult experimental studies of the electronic band structure of carbon materials and the effects of nanoscale confinement. And she was able to theoretically predict the existence of carbon nanotubes, some of their electronic properties, and the properties of graphene, years before either of these materials were prepared and measured. Her scientific achievements are extremely impressive, and she has gotten a lot of honors accordingly.
And as you can imagine, things have changed a lot for women in science over the course of her career. When she began at MIT, less than 5% of students were female, and these days it’s more like 40%. But of course, it helps female students quite a bit to see female role models, like Dresselhaus. She discusses the importance of mentoring in her career in this interview:
Hunter High School was a real turning point for me. I found out about its existence through the music school. Nobody I knew had gone to one of these special high schools, and my teachers didn’t think it was possible to get in. But Hunter sent me a practice exam, and I studied what I needed to know to pass the exam. It was an excellent school with excellent teachers.
By the end you were already known as a science and math whiz. Yet you didn’t think a science career was possible.
At that time there were only three kinds of jobs commonly open to women: teaching, nursing and secretarial work. I went on to Hunter College thinking I would be an elementary schoolteacher.
But then you met Rosalyn Yalow, the future Nobel laureate.
I took her class in elementary nuclear physics. It was a tiny class, maybe 3 students, maybe 10. She was a real leader and a very domineering person. You met her and she said, “You’re going to do this.” She told me I should focus on science. She left the exact science unspecified but said I should do something at the forefront of some area. After that, she was always in my life, writing letters of recommendation for me, keeping up with my progress.
And for more about Mildred Dresselhaus’ scientific achievements, you can read this citation of her work from winning the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012.