Mildred Dresselhaus: the queen of carbon
May 20, 2014 4 comments
Her pioneering work in carbon science has earned her the nickname "the queen of carbon" but Mildred Dresselhaus has never been motivated by personal accolades and prizes. "I work for love. Awards they come, but they are not that important. The doing of the work is what's important, not so much the recognition," says Dresselhaus in this recent video interview with Physics World.
In the interview, Dresselhaus speaks frankly about her early life growing up in the Bronx area of New York during the Great Depression. Initially, her interest in science developed largely from self-learning, but she got a big break when she was awarded a scholarship to attend Hunter College in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and she subsequently went on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago.
After completing her PhD, Dresselhaus moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she began researching graphite, and she has remained there for the whole of her career. In the 1960s carbon research was something of a backwater, which for Dresselhaus was part of the attraction as it meant there could be opportunities for breakthroughs. In the decades that followed, Dresselhaus has made many vital contributions to carbon research, which is now a flourishing field. She was a key figure in the discovery of fullerenes, including carbon "buckyballs", and she also predicted the existence of carbon nanotubes.
In addition to her research on materials, Dresselhaus is revered for her reputation as a educator. In 2012 she received the Enrico Fermi Award for her roles in science leadership and mentoring – an award she finds fitting because, she recalls, Fermi had a significant influence on her scientific development during her PhD, when he acted as her mentor for a while. In the second part of her interview with Physics World, Dresselhaus talks about her passion for education and how her students have been just as inspirational to her as she has been to them. "You're not teaching for yourself, you're teaching for them, conveying not only information but motivation," she explains.