In a White House ceremony on Monday, President Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 people ranging from artists to activists to academics. Among the recipients were two MIT professors whose work has left an indelible mark on the world.
Institute Professor emerita Mildred Dresselhaus earned her nickname, the queen of carbon, for her research on the fundamental properties of that element—work that ushered in the age of nanotechnology.
Of Dresselhaus’s accomplishments, Obama said:
“Mildred Dresselhaus’s high school yearbook contained commentary from her classmates. They printed a mathematical tribute: ‘Mildred equals brains plus fun. In math and science, she’s second to none.’
Growing up in New York during the Great Depression, this daughter of Polish immigrants had three clear paths open to her: teaching, nursing, and secretarial school. Somehow she had something else in mind. And she became an electrical engineer and a physicist, and rose in MIT’s ranks, performed groundbreaking experiments on carbon, became one of the world’s most celebrated scientists. And her influence is all around us—in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives. When she arrived at MIT in 1960, only 4 percent of students were women. Today, almost half are, a new generation walking the path that Millie blazed.”
One of the world’s leading economic theorists, Institute Professor emeritus Robert Solow, was honored for laying the groundwork for modern economics. Awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1987, Solow continues to participate in debates about inequality and economic growth.
At Monday’s ceremony, Obama recalled the excitement surrounding Solow’s Nobel Prize:
“Robert Solow’s father was a businessman who handled a lot of documents. And when Robert became an economist, his dad joked, we do the same thing: deliver papers.
But Bob’s influence extends far beyond the page. More than just about any living economist, he has shaped economic policy, and with it, the lives of people everywhere. His insights into how technological progress drives growth transformed our thinking about how to build prosperity, leading to more investments in research and education—in other words, more investments in people.
When he won the Nobel Prize, a colleague wrote, ‘Economists’ faces lit up all over the world.’ And this isn’t exactly an irrationally exuberant group, economists. They don’t usually get real fired up. But Bob isn’t just admired by his peers; he is adored. And he continues to be a leading voice on the economic challenges of our times, especially when it comes to reversing income inequality and growing the economy for everybody—always pushing our nation to do better for everybody, for all.”
Read the president’s full remarks from the ceremony.
Listen: Dresselhaus talks to NPR’s Audie Cornish about her role as a trailblazer in the field of nanotechnology.
Read a recent interview with Robert Solow on the future of productivity-led growth.