Mildred Dresselhaus

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The Queen of carbon

Mildred Dresselhaus is physicist, born in the United States at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930. She died on February 20, 2017. Daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants with very few resources she was an excellent student and she decided to devote herself to science following the example of her physics professor, and future Medicine Nobel laureate, Rosalyn Yalow. This was the 40s, a time when virtually the only jobs reserved for women were teacher, secretary or nurse.

She graduated in science in 1951 with the highest distinctions of her university. She did her PhD at the University of Chicago, where she studied with the Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi.

She married in 1958 and had four children in a short space of time. Her superiors, however, were very unsympathetic with her situation and her need to combine work and family. She developed almost all her career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dresselhaus delved into a new field of study, magneto-optics. Instead of following the majority by studying semiconductors, she deliberately chose to study a less competitive subject, graphite. Her supervisors were quite skeptical of this choice. In fact, her first experiments were quite disappointing because it was difficult to obtain magneto-optical spectra. This situation completely reversed when she was able to obtain samples of a new synthetic carbon material called pyrolitic carbon.

Her research has helped to develop technology based on fine graphite, which has made electronics ubiquitous, from clothing to smartphones.

She has received several awards including the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of her work on the electronic properties of materials, as well as by expanding the opportunities for women in science and engineering, and more particularly in physics.

«Follow your interests, get the best available education and training, set your sights high, be persistent, be flexible, keep your options open, accept help when offered, and be prepared to help others.»