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MILDRED DRESSELHAUS (1930–2017)
NAE election, 1974: “Contributions to the experimental studies of metals and semimetals, and to education.”
Millie Dresselhaus had a 50-year career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, beginning in 1967 as a visiting professor of electrical engineering. She achieved tenure the next year, and in 1985 was appointed MIT’s first female Institute Professor.
She was noted for her work on graphite, graphite intercalation compounds, fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and low-dimensional thermoelectrics. Her research helped develop technology based on thin graphite, enabling the incorporation of electronics in everything from smartphones to clothing.
She is credited in the Hicks-Dresselhaus Model, the first basic model for low-dimensional thermoelectrics, which initiated the whole band field; and the SFDD model (Riichiro Saito, Mitsutaka Fujita, Gene Dresselhaus, and Mildred Dresselhaus), which first predicted the band structures of carbon nanotubes.
Dresselhaus also supported efforts to increase the participation of women in physics. In 1971 she and a colleague organized the first Women's Forum at MIT, exploring the roles of women in science and engineering. In 2017 she was featured in a delightful General Electric TV ad that asked "What if female scientists were celebrities?," aimed at increasing the number of women in STEM.
She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1985. In 1990 she was the first woman to receive the National Medal of Science in engineering, from President George H.W. Bush, for her work on electronic properties of materials and for expanding opportunities for women in science and engineering. In 1998 she was the first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2009 she became the second woman to receive NSF’s Vannevar Bush Award. In 2012 she was a co-recipient of the Enrico Fermi Award, and she was awarded the Kavli Prize “for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures.” In 2014 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and also inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2015 she was the first woman to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor. The American Physical Society created the Millie Dresselhaus Fund to support and empower more women in physics. And in 2019 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers established the IEEE Mildred Dresselhaus Medal.
She was married to Gene Dresselhaus, theoretician and discoverer of the Dresselhaus effect. They had four children: Marianne, Carl, Paul, and Elliot; and five grandchildren.
Education: BA in liberal arts, Hunter College, 1951; MA in physics, Radcliffe College, 1953; PhD in physics, University of Chicago, 1958 (studied under Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi).