Mildred Dresselhaus went to Hunter College in New York when, for city residents, tuition was $5 a semester.
“To me, this free education meant living a life of service for the rest of my life,” she says. “I don’t serve society every minute, but I do feel a responsibility to provide some payback for all the good things society did for me.”
One of the country’s foremost experts in the field of carbon science, Dresselhaus earned the National Medal of Science in 1990. She served as director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration. And, she has been president of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Last year, she won the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy, and Employment in recognition of work that helped keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of nanostructures and other technologies. She has written five books and received 21 honorary degrees. She now holds a joint appointment in physics and in electrical engineering and computer science.
In addition to serving locally and nationally on multiple boards and committees, Dresselhaus has lived a life of service by mentoring generations of MIT students. Also, for the past 40 years, she has been a strong advocate for increased opportunities for women in science.
“When I came to MIT, it was obvious to me that I had to help women students because there were so few,” says Dresselhaus, adding that when she was a student, the only career opportunity presented to her was to teach elementary school. “I never thought I had a chance to become a faculty member.”
But because she was a top student in science and math, her success encouraged her to major in science, then go on to graduate school. Soon she earned a great reputation in the field.
“Now I tell men and women students, ‘If you feel excited about doing something in life, don’t let anything stop you. Just go out and make it happen.’”