Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Millie Dresselhaus - Science Rock Star!

I love love love this new ad from GE!

"What if we treated great female scientists like they were stars?" Yeah! What if? How cool would that be?

It features Physics and Electrical Engineering rock star Millie Dresselhaus. I love that they have kids dressing up like her for Halloween, a physics student using a Millie Dresselhaus emoji, babies being named for her, and generally everyone celebrating the life and work of this amazing woman.


What I think I love them most about it, though, is that they picked a living woman to celebrate instead of the seemingly ubiquitous Marie Curie or Ada Lovelace. Both of them are great women whose work should be celebrated, of course. But I'm also interested in learning about women doing amazing things in the world today.

Mildred Dresselhaus really is a science rock star! Also known as the "queen of carbon," she was a wiz at math and science in high school -- so much so they wrote a poem about her in the yearbook. In college, she studied physics under future Nobel winner Rosalyn Yalow, which sparked her own interest in pursuing a career in science. "That's where I really got started. And Rosalyn insisted that I go to graduate school. She was a person who used to tell you what you were doing."

She earned her master's in physics at Radcliffe, and then headed off to the University of Chicago to study under Enrico Fermi. In 1958 she wrote her Ph.D. thesis on superconductivity. Her first job was with the Lincoln Laboratory, where she studied semi-conductors and it was her research that led to a clearer understanding of graphite and its electric structure. And she's been at the cutting edge ever since. "As for now, I'm still at the forefront of carbon science. I've been very active in the nanotube area. In 2004 and 2005, I entered the graphene domain. Ironically that's where I started back in 1962; we just didn't have samples of monolayer graphene then. These days I'm working mostly on the photophysics of graphene."

But that's not all! She also served as the assistance secretary of the Department of Energy under President Bush [43]. "I have another side of me and that's the energy side - this started when I was assistant secretary of the DOE. They asked me to do a hydrogen study, because President Bush had the idea that hydrogen was going to be an important energy source, and that led to a whole bunch of other studies. I got back into the science policy area because of that."

And, in between working in the lab and talking policy, she's also active in promoting the role of women in science. In fact, her own granddaughter is taking up the carbon nanotube research. "I'm having a great time watching her. If I had to do the whole thing over again, I'd do it exactly the same way."

FYI: I would love a Millie Dresselhaus doll!

[Edit: It's with a heavy heart that I update this post to say that on February 20, 2017, Mildred Dresselhaus died at the age of 86. She worked right up to the end. Because she's a rock star!]

She was featured in an IEEE Spectrum story a couple of years ago

Read more about her work

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