Groundbreaking studies on carbon nanostructures earned her the title “Queen of Carbon Science”
Mildred S. Dresselhaus, a solid-state physicist, materials scientist, and longtime advocate for women in science, passed away on Monday, Feb. 20, at the age of 86.
Dresselhaus is best known for her scientific work on condensed matter and the atomic properties of carbon, which prompted a journalist to give her the nickname “Queen of Carbon Science” more than 30 years ago.
Since 1967, Dresselhaus worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was an Institute Professor Emerita, and a professor emerita in the school’s departments of physics and electrical engineering and computer science. Her long career at MIT was distinguished with many awards, including the 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, and the National Medal of Science in 1990.
Dresselhaus’s research made fundamental discoveries in the electronic structure of semi-metals. She studied various aspects of graphite and authored a comprehensive book on fullerenes, also known as “buckyballs.” She was particularly well known for her work on nanomaterials and other nanostructural systems based on layered materials, like graphene, and more recently beyond graphene, like transition metal dichalcogenides and phosphorene. Her work on using quantum structures to improve thermoelectric energy conversion reignited this research field.
“Millie is a giant in nanoscience through her groundbreaking work in carbon nanostructures and low-dimensional thermoelectrics,” says her collaborator, MIT mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen. “She has impacted the lives of many people at MIT and all over the world, including myself and many of my students, and she is MIT’s Yoda. This is a huge loss for the scientific community. We will miss her dearly and remember forever her smile and her teaching.”
Few women studied science when Dresselhaus decided to pursue a career in physics in the 1950s, and throughout her career, she mentored many women in the fields of physics, materials science, and beyond. In 2010, she was honored with the American Chemical Society’s Award For Encouraging Women into Careers in The Chemical Sciences.
“By her personality and intelligence alone, Millie simply had a positive influence of the life of all those who came in contact with her,” remembers her colleague Joseph Heremans, a mechanical engineering professor at Ohio State University. “It is impossible to single out any particular trait that led to this; it was the cumulative effect of her charm, scientific brilliance, and friendliness.”
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