Can you imagine--at the age of 81--happily going to work each and every day, and loving what you do? Meet Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, who was born in Brooklyn on November 11th, 1930 and is an Institute Professor and Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering (Emeritus) at MIT. She has taught there ever since she became a visiting professor of Electrical Engineering in 1967, and she has been a tenured faculty member since 1968.
Her parents were immigrants from Poland, and her father always had a hard time finding work (1: No Parental Safety Net). During her childhood, the family often had only meager amounts of food, she had no toys, and owned only one set of clothes, which her mother would wash each night (12: Hard Times).
Because she grew up in a tough neighborhood, she learned to protect herself against bullies when her family moved to the Bronx and she had to travel on the elevated train and the subway (as a six year old) to a school in Greenwich Village. In her words, "The scariest part was coming home and getting off the train in the Bronx, when I had to walk through that dangerous neighborhood. But I survived."
Dresselhaus' older brother was a musical prodigy, and at the age of six she also received a music scholarship. Today, she still plays violin and viola in chamber groups (9: Music).
After attending Hunter High School, Dresselhaus then enrolled at Hunter College where she thought she would become an elementary school teacher because "At that time there were only three kinds of jobs commonly open to women: teaching, nursing and secretarial work." At Hunter she took a class in elementary nuclear physics and her teacher was Rosalyn Yalow, who would later become a Nobel laureate. The class was small, and Yalow told her that she should focus on science. "After that, she was always in my life, writing letters of recommendation for me, keeping up with my progress." Like Dresselhaus, Yalow also came from a disadvantaged background and urged her student to press ahead despite detractors, taught her to recognize opportunity, work hard, and then followed her career with both "advice and love."
Then, when Dresselhaus enrolled in the University of Chicago for her graduate work, she studied with Enrico Fermi, who also had few students and took a great personal interest in each of them. Because they lived near each other, student and professor began walking together early each morning, "He had such a sharp mind. I learned how to think about physics from him." (4: Supportive Someone).
Known to her friends as Millie, Dresselhaus particularly enjoys interacting and working with her students at MIT. "I like to be challenged. I welcome the hard question and having to come up with a good explanation on the spot. That's an experience I really enjoy." (10: The Critic Within).
Dresselhaus became a Fulbright Fellow in 1951, earned a masters in physics from Radcliffe College in 1953, and a Doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1958. As a married mother of four children, she was often harassed when working at the male-dominated Lincoln Lab if she arrived late or left early because of child-related issues (16: Intensive Motherhood). Most of her female colleagues left MIT, but she persevered and became one of the few female professors at MIT when the student body was only 2% female. (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).
As a pioneering woman in science, Dresselhaus has received dozens of prestigious awards. These include 19 honorary doctorate degrees, the 1990 National Medal of Science, and she was one of five women (in 2007) to receive L'Oreal-UNESCO's Women in Science Award (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
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