Kicking Off Women’s History Month with the “Queen of Carbon Science”

March 04, 2022 by Biljana Ognenova

Here is an accolade to Mildred Dresselhaus, a woman who began studying carbon allotropes on a nanoscale level and prompted other female physicists to follow her steps in STEM.

Mildred ("Millie") Dresselhaus has been known by many titles: materials scientist, electrical engineer, nanophysicist, solid-state physicist—and notably, as Institute Professor Emerita of Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, where she finished her career with more than 1,700 research papers behind her name. A prolific researcher and author, she co-authored eight books in her lifetime.


Mildred S. Dresselhaus

Mildred S. Dresselhaus. Image used courtesy of Dominick Reuter and MIT

This article—which kicks off All About Circuits' Women's History Month series—highlights the life and work of Mildred Dresselhaus, "the Queen of Carbon Science," and her lasting impact on modern nanotechnology. 


Dresselhaus' Early Life

Born to Polish Jewish immigrants in 1930, Dresselhaus was raised in New York City where her interest in science was kindled by local museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As an adult, she attended Hunter College in New York, where she excelled in science classes and tutored other students. Dresselhaus was encouraged by one of her teachers—the medicinal physicist and Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow—to pursue a career in physics.

After graduating from Hunter College, Dresselhaus pursued her postgraduate education at the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright Fellowship. She then went on to earn her MA from Radcliffe College. In 1958, she graduated with her PhD from the University of Chicago, where she worked alongside Enrico Fermi, a Nobel laureate and creator of the world's first nuclear reactor. Her next educational transition brought her to Cornell University for her postdoc before she landed at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory as a staff member. 


Dresselhaus was the first woman to become a full, tenured professor at MIT

Dresselhaus was the first woman to become a full, tenured professor at MIT. Image used courtesy of Calvin Campbell/MIT and ResearchGate

The Birth of Carbon Nanoscience

The beginning of  Dresselhaus’ carbon nanotechnology studies was marked by a research paper on graphite published in 1963 in the IBM Journal for Research and Development. Mildred Dresselhaus was among the first to recognize and validate carbon as a possible replacement or addition to silicon in high-frequency electronics. She studied the electronic vibrational properties and structure of carbon allotropes and graphene precursors, specifically graphite. 

Carbon, the sixth most common element in nature, features unique semiconductivity, thermoelectricity, and thermoconductivity. A heat-resistant non-metal, carbon is sometimes classified as metalloid or semimetal because it shows metallic properties. Under certain conditions, the carbon atomic properties change, which allows for its various allotropic shapes to be layered, clustered, flattened, and rolled in cylindrical (tubular) shapes. 


Dresselhaus Explores Fullerenes and Graphite

For her research of carbon fibers and carbon nanotubes (CNT), Dresselhaus was named “the Queen of Carbon Science.” These beginnings later laid the groundwork for more research into the electronic structure of fullerenes, materials with unique thermal and magnetic properties.

Fullerene, explicitly buckminsterfullerene, is an icosahedral spherical carbon allotrope consisting of a serially-attached pentagon and hexagon rings, similar to the shape of a tiny soccer ball called buckyball. Fullerenes have many potential applications, including building microscopic transistors, semiconductors, diodes, capacitors, and drug delivery systems in nanopharmacology. 


Structure of buckminsterfullerene

Structure of buckminsterfullerene. Image used courtesy of Mstroeck and Bryn C [CC BY-SA 3.0]


Intercalation of graphite compounds was a major study area for Dresselhaus, in which she explored intercalating (inserting) layers of guest chemical species between graphite layers to improve its properties. This work created the core research of Li-ion batteries we see nowadays in electric vehicles and smartphones. 


Rolling Effects on Carbon Nanotubes and Graphene

Flexible, tiny, and strong, carbon nanotubes and their composites have found potential applications in thermoelectric devices and green portable power devices. Carbon nanotubes are continually researched as a replacement for silicon in chip fabrication. They are also valued for increasing the speed and processing efficiency of transistors on smaller chips. Much research remains to explore the nature of carbon nanotubes and their mixed metalloid and semiconductor properties.

Graphene, a breakthrough carbon material, is full of promise as highly compatible with biosensors and wireless applications, conductive inks, foldable devices, fast-charging storage systems, and a myriad of other applications that require strong, thin, and inexpensive materials. There is certainly more to be explored in carbon nanoscience, and although we are not yet leaving silicon microchips in the past, the work of Mildred Dresselhaus may have offset a new era of materials science and engineering.     


A Spirit of Mentorship

Dresselhaus had many “firsts” associated with her name. She was the first female professor at MIT to acquire a full tenure, a pioneer researcher of carbon nanoscience, and among the first promotors of women in STEM

Inspired by her mentor Rosalyn Yalow, Dresselhaus continued the pattern of buoying female STEM candidates beginning in 1960, when women comprised only 4% of all students at the famous Massachusetts institute. By the time of her death in 2017, that tiny share has grown close to the 50% mark. 

During her presidency of the American Physical Society, Dresselhaus broached the idea of visiting female physics students on campuses and initiated the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. Although there is always more to be done to diversify EE demographics, Dresselhaus became a role model for many women studying and working in a male-saturated field. 

In 2017, General Electric selected Dresselhaus to star in a television commercial, where she asked, "What if female scientists were celebrities?" The campaign intended to attract more women to STEM professions using Dresselhaus as an example of innovation and success. 


International Acclaim 

Throughout her life, Dresselhaus won multiple awards from international organizations. In 1990, she was awarded a National Medal of Science by President G.W. Bush.

From 2000 to 2001, she was appointed to be the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, and from 2003 to 2008, she served on the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. She also occupied several leadership positions, including treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences, president of the American Physical Society, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

In 2010, she received the Enrico Fermi Award as joint recognition of her leadership work in condensed matter physics and mentoring women in physics. Examining the thermal properties of nanoscale materials and electron-phonon interaction brought her the 2012 Kavli prize for nanoscience.


Dresselhaus receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Dresselhaus receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Image used courtesy of Olivier Douliery and The Chicago Tribune

In 2014, Dresselhaus won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the same year, she was also inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame for her many patents. Praised by colleagues, Mildred Dresselhaus has received one of the highest acknowledgments in her field: the IEEE Medal of Honor. 

While Dresselhaus died at the age of 86 in 2017, her groundbreaking work in carbon science lives on—along with the example she set for women in engineering everywhere.



This piece is the first in a series of articles that All About Circuits will publish throughout Women's History Month, celebrating key female figures in electrical engineering. Stay tuned for more feature stories.