From humble origins as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, raised in the Bronx in the depths of the Great Depression, Mildred Dresselhaus scaled to great heights in the scientific community and attained the status of royalty — even if only in nickname.
Dresselhaus, the “Queen of Carbon” and pioneer of nanoscience, died Monday at the age of 86, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During her celebrated career, she sought to prepare a path for potential successors — the female scientists whom she mentored and opened doors for across decades.
“When I came, we only had 4 percent of women at MIT, period, and fewer even in physics,” Dresselhaus told NPR in 2007, recalling when she was hired by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1960. “And today we’re getting close to the 50 percent mark. That’s an amazing achievement in one lifetime.
“Of course,” she added modestly, “I didn’t have that much to do with making it all happen.”
Many would beg to differ.
Dresselhaus’ work with carbon materials, semiconductors and nanotubes made her the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering, in 1990, and earned her the Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the U.S. — in 2014. In fact, she racked up more than her fair share of firsts along with those medals: She was the first woman to become a fully tenured professor at MIT, the first to become an institute professor and the first solo recipient of the prestigious Kavli Prize, for her contributions to nanoscience.
“What if we treated great female scientists like they were stars?” that commercial asked.
In Dresselhaus’ field, at least, the physicist was indeed a star.
“Yesterday, we lost a giant — an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a letter to the school Tuesday.
She “laid the foundation of nanotechnology by predicting the existence of carbon nanotubes before anyone had actually seen these tiny but very strong structures for the first time,” Talk of the Nation host Ira Flatow explained in 2007.
These days, carbon nanotubes are “incorporated in diverse commercial products ranging from rechargeable batteries, automotive parts, and sporting goods to boat hulls and water filters,” researchers noted in the journal Science in 2013.
Indeed, they even have applications out of this world, as Dresselhaus told NPR.
“The mechanical properties [of carbon materials] are such that without them we wouldn’t have a space program. That is, the strength and stiffness of carbon fibers which initially supported the space program were absolutely essential for the spacecraft to have the strength-to-weight factor — and the nanotubes are even better in this regard,” Dresselhaus said.
“They have additional resiliency and elasticity properties, as well as the strength.”
But her research was by no means limited to nanotubes. In 2012, The New York Times explained that:
“She invented breakthrough techniques for studying individual layers of carbon atoms. She discovered ways to capture the thermal energy of vibrating particles at well-defined ‘boundaries,’ and then to use that heat to make electricity.
“She devised carbon fibers that are stronger than steel at a fraction of steel’s weight. Her research helped usher in the age of nanotechnology, the wildly popular effort to downsize electronic circuits, medical devices and a host of other products to molecular dimensions.”
Still, as crucial as Dresselhaus’ work was to her field, she remained a mentor to “dozens of young faculty and hundreds of MIT students over the years,” said Reif, who added that he counts her as his mentor.
And even in 2014, Dresselhaus was still evangelizing for the sciences.
“I think that entering the field of science is really almost the best career [young women] can have,” Dresselhaus told NPR’s Audie Cornish. “What’s the reason for it? There are two reasons. One, the work is very interesting, and secondly, you’re judged by what you do and not what you look like.”
And perhaps few scientists did more in their lifetimes than Dresselhaus.