MIT Institute Professor Emeritus Millie Dresselhaus recalls mentor’s influence as she receives award in his name
MIT Institute Professor Emeritus delivers the MRS Von Hippel Award talk on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, at the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Photo: Denis Paiste, Materials Processing Center
Her late friend, Arthur R. von Hippel, embodied scientific curiosity, exemplified how to be a mentor and shared her passion for music, MIT Institute Professor Emeritus Mildred S. Dresselhaus said Wednesday night in accepting the Materials Research Society award named in his honor.
Von Hippel encouraged her, made her part of his string quartet and remained her friend from the time she joined MIT’s Lincoln Lab in 1960 until his death in 2003 at 105. She became a professor at MIT in 1968.
Dresselhaus said she had good luck in having for mentors over her long career future Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow while Dresselhaus was an undergraduate at Hunter College in New York, Enrico Fermi while she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and von Hippel at MIT. (Dresselhaus received the Enrico Fermi award from President Barack Obama in 2012.)
“When I first arrived at my independent career, I was informed to work on something that was interesting to me and that people didn’t know anything about. That was the 1960s. Carbon science had essentially nobody working in there, so von Hippel thought that was a pretty good topic to be working on,” Dresselhaus said. He encouraged her to work on graphite.
Dresselhaus’ work led her to use the first laser experiments with circularly polarized light that established the location of electrons and holes, or electron vacancies, in graphite, a simple form of carbon. She went on to study superconductivity in layered carbon and potassium compounds, then dense clusters of carbon atoms such as fullerenes, and carbon nanotubes, writing books on the latter two. At the prompting of government researchers, Dresselhaus said she wrote “Graphite Fibers and Filaments.” “We became experts in carbon fibers for a while,” she said.
Later spectroscopy experiments showed that because of their unique configurations, carbon nanotubes could be either metallic or semiconducting. “Nano science has really benefitted from all those ideas,” she said.
In answer to a question about women in science, Dresselhaus encouraged current faculty to be active mentors particularly to encourage young women to become scientists. “Women and men do the same science, and we have to measure up,” she said. What is different for young women is that even before getting to college many are discouraged with questions such as “What is a pretty girl like you doing studying physics?” Faculty need to serve as mentors to encourage young women to be successful both in their personal and professional lives and can help by sharing their own personal journeys to achieve balance, she said.
MIT Institute Professor Emeritus receives the von Hippel award Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, from Materials Research Society President Orlando Auciello, of the University of Texas at Dallas, during the MRS Fall meeting in Boston. The award includes a crystal trophy and cash prize. Photo: Denis Paiste, Materials Processing Center
Dresselhaus recalled that von Hippel, who worked in the lab until age 90, helped develop radar during World War II and was always interested in practical applications as well as his theoretical research. “He liked complicated materials and was an expert in perovskites and ferroelectrics,” Dresselhaus recalled.
“The carbon-carbon bond is the strongest bond in nature,” she said. “We wouldn’t have a space industry without the carbon-carbon bond.” Isotopes of carbon also present opportunities for scientific research and practical applications.
The Materials Research Society has conferred the MRS Von Hippel Award yearly since 1976, when it was first given to von Hippel. Materials Research Society President Orlando Auciello, of the University of Texas at Dallas, presented the award to Dresselhaus at the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel for her pioneering contributions to the fundamental science of carbon-based and other low electron density materials, her leadership in energy and science policy, and her exemplary mentoring of young scientists. The award includes a $10,000 cash prize.
Written by Denis Paiste, Materials Processing Center