Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, known as the Queen of Carbon Chemistry, has been a trailblazer since her early days. During her first year as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago she made opportunities to interact and learn from physicist Enrico Fermi, the man who lead the team that created the world’s first nuclear reactor.
Undertaking her PhD project investigating the microwave properties of a superconductor in a magnetic field she meet some unique challenges. Because of the hybrid nature of her research made buying the equipment she needed off the shelf almost impossible, she found much of what she needed under the university’s football stands. After Fermi’s group had created the first man-made nuclear-fission chain reaction they had left a large amount of surplus equipment and Dresselhaus repurposed the materials including building microwave equipment in order to carry out her experiments.
Earning her doctorate in 1958 she was awarded a fellowship at Cornell University where she met with blatant sexism, including being told by a male colleague that a woman would never lecture to his engineering students. Leaving two years later she joined the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT where she started her work with graphite, bismuth and other semimetals.
Seven years later she accepted a visiting professorship in electrical engineering at MIT, a position that was made permanent the next year. In 1983 a joint appointment in physics was added. Dresselhaus and her students have investigated the properties of graphite and carbon compounds that had been doped with bromine or potassium atoms. This group also laid the foundation for the discovery and use of materials like buckminsterfullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and graphene which have the potential to shake up the computing, energy, and transportation sectors.
According to the IEEE, a group that awarded Dresselhaus its Medal of Honor in 2015, “the era of carbon electronics can be traced back to her tireless research efforts.” Still working seven days a week she is not only a leader in the field of carbon research but continues to act as a mentor to young women entering STEM fields.
Written by Angela Goad