Institute professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus is the recipient of the IEEE 2015 Medal of Honor — IEEE’s highest honor, given since 1917. She is cited “For leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering.” She will receive the award at the June IEEE annual meeting. [Photo by Ed Quinn/courtesy Dresselhaus lab]
When she worked at Lincoln Laboratory’s Solid State Division in 1960, Professor Dresselhaus was given the freedom to select her research focus. She chose carbon, with the goal of discovering how it acts at the most fundamental levels. Professor Dresselhaus joined MIT’s Electrical Engineering Department in 1967 and added an appointment to the Physics Department in 1983; she became Institute Professor in 1985. In 2000–2001, she was the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy. From 2003-2008, she was the chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. She has also served as president of the American Physical Society, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1990, Professor Dresselhaus received the National Medal of Science in recognition of her work on the electronic properties of materials. That year, at a Department of Defense workshop on carbon materials research, she discussed and then collaborated on studies of single-walled carbon nanotubes, which, with altered geometry, revealed the potential for multiple applications. Her core contributions at that time also extended to low-dimensional thermoelectrics, in response to a request from the U.S. Navy.
“Throughout my career,” Dresselhaus notes, "I have been interested in finding out how the unique properties of new materials beyond silicon could contribute to electronics. My recent research interests involve layered materials like the semimetal graphene, the related wide gap semiconductor hexagonal boron nitride in its few layered form, the few layered transition metal dichalcogenides which offer a wide variety of properties from semiconductors to metals, to Phosphorene which is a puckered layer semiconductor."
Whether in Washington or Cambridge, Professor Dresselhaus has been a leading voice for women’s roles in physics and engineering as well as a mentor for all her students. In 2010, the American Chemical Society presented her with the ACS Award for Encouraging Women in Careers in the Chemical Sciences. As the first woman to be awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor, Professor Dresshelhaus again breaks new ground.
In 2012, Professor Dresselhaus was recognized by the US Department of Energy with the Enrico Fermi Award — for her leadership in condensed matter physics, in energy and science policy, in service to the scientific community, and in mentoring women in the sciences — followed a few months later by the Kavli Prize for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions and thermal transport in nanostructures. In November 2014, Millie Dresselhaus traveled again to the White House, this time to receive the National Medal of Freedom. At MIT, she continues to delve into the endless opportunities she finds in her research.