US/World News

Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus was ‘Queen of Carbon’

(JTA) – Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, the daughter of impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants whose pioneering research into the thermal and electrical properties of carbon earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon,” died Feb. 20. She was 86. Dresselhaus was an advocate for women in science fields.

Her research was foundational to the field called nanoscience, in which matter is manipulated at an atomic and molecular level. Her pioneering work earned her the $1 million Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012, the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and IEEE Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Dresselhaus had gained wider fame in recent weeks with her starring role in a television commercial promoting General Electric’s efforts to promote women in science. The commercial, titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” imagines a world in which young girls dress up as Dresselhaus, glossy magazines feature her on their covers and gossip columns keep tabs on her comings and goings.

Dresselhaus, nee Mildred Spiewak, was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1930 and grew up in the Bronx. She attended the selective Hunter College High School in Manhattan. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Hunter College, where she took an elementary physics class with another daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel laureate in medicine. Dresselhaus often said it was Yalow who pushed her to go down the path of science and physics at a time when educated women were expected to become secretaries, nurses or teachers. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Radcliffe College and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Two years after her marriage to fellow physicist Gene Dresselhaus in 1958, both were offered faculty positions at MIT. In 1968 she became a professor at MIT, where her research led to advances in carbon-based materials used in solid-state electronics. As early as the mid-1970s she became a public advocate for women in engineering and science. Later in her career, MIT named her institute professor emerita, its highest distinction, and she continued teaching and researching until shortly before she died.

Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, their four children and five grandchildren.

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