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Mildred S. Dresselhaus,
PhD’59, MIT’s institute professor and professor of physics and electrical engineering, has been at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school since 1960. Pioneering research on superconductivity, magneto-optics, and carbon science, her experiments have led to a fundamental understanding of the electronic structure of semimetals, especially graphite. In Hyde Park this June to accept the Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Alumni Medal, Dresselhaus noted that she’d defended her thesis 50 years ago that month. Since then she’s not only conducted groundbreaking research but also mentored more than 75 PhD students, led programs to encourage women to enter science, directed the federal Office of Science under President Bill Clinton, and won honors including the 1990 National Medal of Science and the American Physical Society’s 2008 Buckley Prize. She’s always had spirit: professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics Peter Vandervoort, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, said that as his teaching assistant Dresselhaus “scolded me for neglecting to work as many physics problems as she knew I should.” That work ethic continues with recent studies focusing on carbon nanotubes, bismuth nanowires, and low-dimensional thermoelectricity.


The Fermi way: As I compare notes with other people who got their PhDs at the same time, I think that we had about as broad an education as anybody could get in any university in the whole world in physics at that time. Part of this was due to one individual whose philosophy about teaching physics and training graduate students was all-pervasive. And that was Enrico Fermi. His idea was that graduate students should learn the fundamentals of all subfields of physics, so when they decided somewhere during their graduate studies to pursue one type or another of physics they would be able to do that. [That approach] served me particularly well. I changed subfields a few times and changed my research. I was a lab director where I had responsibilities for many different areas. I was on the board of directors for companies where I was the only scientist. And when I served in the Clinton Administration as director of the Office of Science, I was able to ask people in other fields specific questions. 

In need of a thesis topic? I had a lot of independence when I was doing my thesis, and it was really good for me because when I graduated I felt I could dream up research problems not only for myself but for anybody else who wanted a thesis problem. I’m always giving out thesis problems to people, even those who don’t have anything to do with me, because I like doing that.
From sparseness to Sputnik: I was at the University of Chicago at an interesting time, shortly after WW II, when the physics department was a gathering of people from the laboratories around the country—Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, large national programs. And they felt a dedication to society to do something. At the time I started my graduate study there were essentially no jobs, yet we found support somehow. People found teaching assistants or fellowships or something. But then Sputnik came along, and things changed. There were all of a sudden many opportunities. But we still had a feeling of gratitude, and the faculty had a feeling of gratitude too. And they were serving on all kinds of committees for the government and for everybody else. I believe that society as a whole would benefit from maintaining this close relationship between the academic world and the needs of the community out there. This is something we’re going to need very strongly as we address the problems of the century: for example, our energy security, health, you can name it, many things.

Early bird gets her work done: Another thing that’s useful is how to organize your time so you have time to do research. When you arrive in the morning there are all these pressures, all these things happening on your schedule, and you have to work around that because if that’s all you do, the next day you’ve not done much. [My Chicago mentors] taught me to get up early in the morning and get my work done before everybody else arrived. I’ve done that throughout my career. Even when I was working in the government I used to arrive before any of the staff so I would have everything ready when they arrived.