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Mildred Dresselhaus, Jewish Scientist Dubbed the “Queen of Carbon,” Died at 86

Video recorded in 2001 and interviewed by Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto, scientist Mildred Dresselhaus

Mildred Dresselhaus, a badass Jewish scientist whose monumental work with carbon helped build modern science and the nanotechnology industry as a whole, passed away on Monday in Cambridge, MA at age 86. She was a  a professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dresselhaus, dubbed the “Queen of Carbon” by other scientists, came from a humble background. She was born as Mildred Spiewak on November 11, 1930 in Brooklyn to Polish-Jewish immigrants from Poland–and, the Times obituary notes, grew up in the Bronx on public assistance. Because Dresselhaus did exceptionally in school, she was able to win scholarships to universities. Of her childhood, Dresselhaus said:

“My early years were spent in a dangerous, multiracial, low-income neighborhood. My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics.”

So, what Dresselhaus actually do with carbon? According the New York Times, pretty much everything:

“Dr. Dresselhaus used resonant magnetic fields and lasers to map out the electronic energy structure of carbon. She investigated the traits that emerge when carbon is interwoven with other materials: Stitch in some alkali metals, for example, and carbon can become a superconductor, in which an electric current meets virtually no resistance.

Dr. Dresselhaus was a pioneer in research on fullerenes, also called buckyballs: soccer-ball-shaped cages of carbon atoms that can be used as drug delivery devices, lubricants, filters and catalysts.

She conceived the idea of rolling a single-layer sheet of carbon atoms into a hollow tube, a notion eventually realized as the nanotube — a versatile structure with the strength of steel but just one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.

She worked on carbon ribbons, semiconductors, nonplanar monolayers of molybdenum sulfide, and the scattering and vibrational effects of tiny particles introduced into ultrathin wires.”

But besides being a genius scientist, she also advocated for women in science, which makes sense considering she’s the first woman ever to be a full-time professors at MIT (starting in 1968). Only a few years later in 1971, she and another colleague created the first Women’s Forum at M.I.T., with the intention of exploring the roles of women in science. This in itself is significant, considering women were basically blacklisted from roles in science and academia, meaning that without Dresselhaus, science would be a very different place. Even Dresselhaus didn’t always believe she’d be a prominent scientist, stating in a prior interview:

“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.”

Her colleagues and friends support the fact that Dresselhaus was supportive of other women. Lorna Gibson, now a professor of materials science and engineering, stated that she was an “approachable intellectual powerhouse,” while professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology Jacqueline K. Barton went on to say how she was a mentor to her:

“Millie was very straightforward, no frilly stuff, and I loved that about her. She was always warm and supportive to me, but I also had the feeling it was important to let her know about my last good experiment.”

As if building a career in academia and pioneering carbon uses wouldn’t keep her busy enough, the Jewish scientist was also a mother and wife–she was married to Gene Dresselhaus, a well-known theorist, with whom she had four children and several grandchildren. Interestingly, the fact that she was a mother influenced her decision to study carbon, which she explained:

“I thought it was an interesting material and it was amenable to the laboratory capabilities we had, in magneto-optics. I also liked having a problem that was not too popular. I had young children at the time. If one day I had to be at home with a sick child, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked how she was able to balance it all, Dresselhaus once said that having a dedicated partner helps (and access to child care):

“A good husband is a vital part of it, somebody who understands what you’re trying to do and encourages it. I also had a good baby sitter. She worked for me for 29 years.”

In a time where immigrants (mostly especially Muslim immigrants) are being penalized in the U.S. for not being “American,” Dresselhaus’ story is not only fascinating, but an object lesson about a family that came here with little means and left the legacy of scientific achievement. American history is steeped in the history of immigrants, and without people coming to the U.S. in search of opportunity and a place to achieve their dreams, there wouldn’t be a United States of America. The similarities between Jewish immigrants like Dresselhaus’s family and Muslim immigrants of today whose kids might grow up to make amazing contributions is too strikingly similar to ignore–and let’s all remember that.

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