BOOK EXCERPT

How a Nobel-winning biophysicist launched the career of the “Queen of Carbon”

Mildred Dresselhaus laid the foundations for countless advances in nanotechnology

By Maia Weinstock

Published March 13, 2022 10:00AM (EDT)

Pr. Mildred Dresselhaus with an ultra high vacuum surface analysis system for imaging and characterizing thin film organic and inorganic materials and devices in the soft semiconductor lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mildred Dresselhaus, USA, LOreal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science, 2007 Laureate for North America, 'For her research on solid state materials, including conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes'. (Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Pr. Mildred Dresselhaus with an ultra high vacuum surface analysis system for imaging and characterizing thin film organic and inorganic materials and devices in the soft semiconductor lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mildred Dresselhaus, USA, LOreal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science, 2007 Laureate for North America, 'For her research on solid state materials, including conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes'. (Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Excerpt adapted from "Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus" by Maia Weinstock. Copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS.

The late 1940s encompassed a unique period for women in science in the United States. After scores of women had entered scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical fields for the first time to support the war effort, American women were routinely discouraged from pursuing STEM careers in the postwar era. Many top colleges and universities refused to admit women as students until the late 1960s or early 1970s. Women of color were particularly hard to find in labs and in scientific journals during the mid-twentieth century.

This was the climate in which Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus found herself when she first enrolled as an undergraduate at Hunter College in New York City in 1948. Dresselhaus would eventually become a decorated MIT physicist, making highly influential discoveries about the properties of materials. Based on her far-reaching foundational research, scientists and engineers have made enormous advances at the nanoscale—discovering structures like spherical carbon "buckyballs," cylindrical carbon nanotubes, and 2D carbon sheets known as graphene that have made products from aircraft to cellphones stronger, lighter, and more efficient. But her rise to science stardom from humble beginnings was improbable, and Dresselhaus began her college experience with low expectations.

As a child, Dresselhaus had her fill of science inspirations, including issues of National Geographic she bought with pocket change, as well as books such as "Microbe Hunters," a dramatic account of medical victories by Paul de Kruif, and "Madame Curie," a biography of two-time Nobel laureate Marie Curie by her daughter, Eve Curie. There were also clandestine visits to the Hayden Planetarium, into which Dresselhaus would regularly sneak on account of being unable to pay admission.

Yet academic research was not something she could envision for long-term pursuits. Although she had earned high marks at a top magnet school for girls, she was told that only three career paths were open to her: teaching, secretarial work, and nursing. In fact, Dresselhaus' top priority entering college was to improve on the financial situation that her parents, poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, had struggled through during the Great Depression—a condition so dire that they sometimes had difficulty putting food on the table. In high school, Dresselhaus made great strides toward her goal by developing a lucrative tutoring business. And so, when she first enrolled at Hunter College, she planned to become a teacher. But what actually happened was a little more extraordinary.

With advanced standing due to strong high school grades, Dresselhaus thrilled to take on a healthy serving of electives, mostly in math and science, in her first year at Hunter. But things changed quickly for her as a sophomore. It was at this time that she met and instantly bonded with someone who would serve as a teacher, a role model, a friend, and even something of a mother figure during their many decades in contact.

An eminent exemplar

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow is best known as the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, a feat she accomplished in 1977 for her development of the radioimmunoassay technique, a way to use radioactive labeling to measure concentrations of biological and pharmacological substances in blood. (Yalow shared the Nobel with two others for unrelated work; her longtime collaborator, Solomon Berson, had died and was therefore ineligible for the prize.) The first woman to win the medicine prize, Gerty Cori, had done so exactly three decades earlier, when she shared the 1947 Nobel with her colleague (and husband) Carl Cori and with Argentine researcher Bernardo Houssay for their collective work on sugar metabolism.

For Yalow, the first American-born woman to win any Nobel in science, her path to success was like an ant's course to its nest—meandering but with a singular objective: translating her scientific acumen into a career focused on research. When Yalow met her future protégé, just two years after Cori received her Nobel in Stockholm, she was struggling to find a place for herself within the scientific community.

Yalow in fact had attended Hunter College a decade prior and in the process became the institution's first physics graduate. In an effort to pry open a door to a research career, she worked briefly as a secretary before following an opportunity to teach—and earn a PhD in nuclear physics—at the University of Illinois. But research positions remained largely closed to women—and Jews—during the mid-1940s, especially after World War II veterans returned from service. She eventually landed a full-time research position at what was then the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, where she would remain for the next four decades until her retirement. But prior to finding that research home, Yalow returned to her alma mater as a way to tread water while she figured out her next move. She served as an adjunct professor at Hunter for only a few years, but her timing was incredibly consequential for the trajectory of one student in particular. Were it not for Yalow and her star pupil overlapping for approximately sixteen months at a city college in the country's largest metropolis, the course of Dresselhaus' history would have been drastically different.

In February 1949, Dresselhaus enrolled in an introductory-level physics course that covered the basics in Yalow's specialty, nuclear physics. The class, she said, "totally knocked me over," and with enrollment in the single digits, student and teacher got to know each other well. They bonded immediately, in what Dresselhaus later described as "sort of love at first sight." While Dresselhaus found in Yalow a scientist who shared her passion for inquiry and provided strong academic and career encouragement, Yalow saw a bit of herself in the whip-smart Dresselhaus, who shared a drive to follow her academic interests, regardless of whatever rules—actual or understood—she had to bend in order to do so.

Yalow became a trusted mentor who would nurture Dresselhaus in ways large and small throughout her career. The strongest means of early support was encouraging her to forget teaching and pursue research. "She was the one who was most influential in leading me to attend graduate school and to go to the best schools and to study with the best scholars," Dresselhaus said of Yalow. "She [told] me that I could make it even though I was a woman, and she did warn me that the road ahead for women in science might be more difficult, but not to be deterred."

To supplement her course work, Yalow suggested that Dresselhaus attend colloquia hosted by the Columbia University Department of Physics, home to individuals like Willis Lamb and Polykarp Kusch, who would go on to share a Nobel Prize for work on electrons and hydrogen, and to Chien-Shiung Wu, an expert in radioactive decay whose monumental experiment on the conservation of parity would lead to a Nobel for two of her male colleagues. Yalow also invited Dresselhaus to her home on at least one occasion. "That was amazing; no other teacher ever did that," Dresselhaus said. 

In truth, encourage may not be the most accurate word to describe Yalow's early support. According to Dresselhaus, once her mentor recognized her talent, she all but insisted that Dresselhaus change her plans for the future. "Rosalyn was quite a domineering person," she recalled after winning the prestigious Kavli Prize in 2012. "She just gave orders, and I pretty much did what she said." In a New York Times interview that same year, Dresselhaus said of Yalow, "You met her and she said, 'You're going to do this.' She told me I should focus on science. She left the exact science unspecified but said I should do something at the forefront of some area."

The two had different personalities. Dresselhaus was generally accommodating, quick to avoid confrontation, and always seeking places where she could quietly make a positive mark, whereas Yalow was singularly headstrong. This could be a positive attribute for someone striving for leadership, especially at a time when women were still seen as inferior to men in science (and many other realms). "She has to be that way," Dresselhaus explained to Yalow biographer Eugene Straus. "If she weren't that way she wouldn't be what she is today. That very strong focus. The world is gray, but she is able to make black and white out of it, and that's always helped her."

Yet when she took someone under her wing, as she did with Dresselhaus, Yalow was extremely loyal. "There are sides of Rosalyn that the public doesn't see but I've seen," Dresselhaus noted in a 2002 interview. As an example, Dresselhaus recalled that after college but still very early in her career, Yalow would, whenever possible, bring her husband, Aaron, to Dresselhaus' brief, ten-minute American Physical Society talks—along with shopping bags brimming with goodies. "She can be very motherly," Dresselhaus added.

Dresselhaus did take Yalow's exhortations to heart and changed her focus from education to physical sciences. Although she was fascinated with physics and chemistry, she continued as well with a strong mathematics course load and was seriously considering math as an alternate focus.

A scientist takes flight

Yalow left Hunter to pursue full-time research at the Bronx VA during Dresselhaus' junior year, but she encouraged Dresselhaus to apply for fellowships in research programs that would lead to graduate degrees. Of course, Dresselhaus was pulling her own weight, acing her courses and generally making it difficult for anyone without prejudice to turn her away.

With lavish praise from Yalow and other Hunter faculty, Dresselhaus secured several opportunities for advanced study as she neared graduation. She accepted a Fulbright fellowship in physics at Cambridge University in the UK and a spot in a graduate program at Radcliffe College.

On the evening of June 21, 1951, nearly a thousand young women and men gathered to celebrate the completion of their degrees earned at Hunter College. For most in the audience, the occasion marked the last stop in their formal education; for a rarefied few, it was just the beginning. 

Dresselhaus was one of only five students in her class to graduate summa cum laude—with highest distinction. In her graduation program, she was listed with numerous honors. But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the day was her interaction with the ceremony's featured speaker: Mina Rees, director of mathematical sciences in the US Office of Naval Research and the future first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). After the ceremony, Rees congratulated Dresselhaus specifically. She passed on her strong approval of Dresselhaus' career plans, and encouraged her to continue with her studies. "It was," said Dresselhaus of the exchange, "a nice pat on the back."

Nearly four decades later, in 1990, Mildred Dresselhaus visited the White House to accept the U.S. Medal of Science from President George H.W. Bush, "for her studies of the electronic properties of metals and semimetals, and for her service to the nation in establishing a prominent place for women in physics and engineering." Yalow, her mentor, had won the award two years prior. In 1998, Dresselhaus followed in Rees' footsteps, becoming president of the AAAS, the ninth woman elected to that prestigious position. She would earn the nickname, "Queen of Carbon," for decades of work that expanded our understanding of materials, but she was equally known as a beloved professor who encouraged women and other underrepresented students in STEM.

As a budding scholar, Dresselhaus benefited greatly from the philosophy of her alma mater, Hunter College: "I learned a lot of things there, in terms of the responsibility of an individual to society, that it's not enough to only take, but you have to give," she said. In the give-and-take of academic mentorship, Dresselhaus received much from her interaction with the inspiring Rosalyn Yalow—and to the world she gave much in return.


Excerpt adapted from "Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus" by Maia Weinstock. Copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS.


Maia Weinstock

Maia Weinstock is an editor, writer, and producer of science and children's media whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, SPACE.com, BrainPOP, and Scholastic's Science World. She is Deputy Editorial Director at MIT News, a lecturer at MIT on the history of women in STEM, and creator of LEGO's “Women of NASA.”

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