Courtesy L’Oréal ©Micheline Pelletier/Gamma

Today, MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, the once-dubbed “Queen of Carbon,” was awarded the 2007 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science prize for “her research on solid state materials, including conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes.” Dresselhaus is one of five female laureates, each from a different continent, to receive a $100,000 “no strings attached” grant in honor of her scientific achievement.

Dresselhaus said this is the first time she’s received a “women in science” award.

“In the early days, I was active in trying to level the playing field at my own institution,” Dresselhaus said, noting that she has mentored female students and postdocs throughout her career. When she was president of the American Physical Society, she worked to improve opportunities for women in physics nationwide. “Winning this award, this gave me a signal that maybe it’s time to be thinking worldwide.”

Marc Kastner, the head of the MIT physics department, said it was “absolutely wonderful” that Dresselhaus is being recognized for her achievements.

“I would say that she is one of the most important woman physicists in the world, and it’s very appropriate that she win this award,” he said. “First of all, as a role model, she’s someone who has done truly exceptional research and has made great discoveries, and any young woman who looks at her should say, ‘It’s possible for a woman to do that.’ More directly, she’s been a great mentor for a lot of young women in physics.”

Dresselhaus herself grew up in an era when American women faced concrete obstacles along the path to becoming a scientist. When she was at all-female Hunter College as an undergraduate, Dresselhaus said, she was studying to be a schoolteacher; she had been told in high school that, as a woman, her career options were limited to teacher, secretary, or nurse. But her physics professor, Rosalyn Yalow, redirected her path. Yalow was teaching physics because she couldn’t get a better job, Dresselhaus said.

Of course, “she’s the one with the Nobel Prize in nuclear medicine—first one to get a prize in the medical field with a physics background,” Dresselhaus added.

But Dresselhaus said that at the time, she wasn’t very sensitive to the issue of women in science: Since her college was entirely female, there was no gender division. Even when military veterans returning from duty were allowed to join the classes, Dresselhaus found that their technical training made them skilled laboratory workers, but female students were generally more adept at problem sets. When she went to Cambridge on a Fulbright, Dresselhaus continued to research independently without much interference.

It wasn’t until she attended graduate school at Harvard that she became aware of a problem. Women didn’t have the same access to scholarships that men did. They couldn’t take their examinations in the same room or at the same time as the guys—“We must be too distracting to them, or something,” Dresselhaus joked—and separate wasn’t equal. If there was an error in an exam question, only the men learned about it. When Dresselhaus received scholarships, instead of being congratulated, she was reprimanded for taking money away from a man “who would actually do something with his career.”

Dresselhaus has more than done something with her career. She has pioneered the field of carbon science, describing the electronic structure of graphite, expanding the field of intercalation physics, and predicting the properties of carbon nanotubes.

Dresselhaus began her work on carbon in the early 1960s at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where she studied the hot research field of magneto optics—the interaction of light with magnetized material. Her husband had worked on graphite and diamond in his own studies and suggested she apply her research area to those materials. Other scientists were shying away from this research because it was “complicated and difficult,” but when a breakthrough in materials science allowed for the production of large samples of graphite, Dresselhaus got a boost.

“That sort of opened up the field of magneto optics to carbon systems,” she said. “Today this is still a very active field, because now we have graphene. There are a whole bunch of people that are redoing the experiment I did many, many years ago on this new graphene system. So, it’s like cycles in science.”

Using resonant magnetic fields, Dresselhaus was able to gain an unprecedented amount of information about the electronic energy structure of carbon. Dresselhaus and Ali Javan, inventor of the gas laser, became the first to use a laser in a magneto optics experiment, discovering that scientists had previously been mislabeling graphite’s energy structure.

In 1977, Dresselhaus helped launch the field of intercalation physics—the study of properties that arise when two materials are interwoven. After investigating why graphite that was interwoven with alkali metals acts as a superconductor, she worked in intercalation physics for 20 years.

“We discovered many, many things—from transport, to magnetism, superconductivity, everything—in these graphite intercalation compounds,” she said.

Dresselhaus planted the seeds for the theoretical framework of carbon nanotubes, extremely strong and conductive carbon structures, in somewhat unusual circumstances. In 1991, she attended a conference on

fullerenes, large carbon molecules, where she planned to discuss some of her experiments with high magnetic fields. But two days before the talk, she discovered that her experiment had not produced the results she had hoped for. So Dresselhaus quickly put together a talk musing on what would happen if these carbon molecules were enlarged to include more and more atoms. She concluded that eventually the molecule would become a tube, and she discussed what properties that tube might have. While she meant the paper to just be whimsical, she said, her colleagues took it very seriously. Thus began work on what became carbon nanotubes.

Now, nearly 50 years after earning her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Dresselhaus is one of MIT’s 12 active Institute Professors, the highest honor the university bestows on faculty. (Dresselhaus was the first woman to be receive the title.) She is currently co-chairing the NAS Board of Physics and Astronomy Condensed Matter and Materials Physics Committee, which is due to complete a study on the current and future state of the field within the next few months.

Originally published February 22, 2007

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