MIT physicist, godmother of graphene awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Mildred Dresselhaus, in the grey jacket, was recieved at the Oval Office in 2013, and that was before she won the President's Medal of Freedom. Photo: Peter Souza/The White House
Mildred Dresselhaus, in the grey jacket, was recieved at the Oval Office in 2013, and that was before she won the President's Medal of Freedom. Photo: Peter Souza/The White House

Is this MIT physicist the Meryl Streep of science? There’s certainly good reason to mention both names in the same breath — Mildred Dresselhaus and the Academy Award-winning actress were both named Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees by the White House on Monday.

The medal is just the latest achievement for Dresselhaus, who also has the National Medal of Science and a Kavli Prize sitting on her mantle. The octogenarian researcher has picked up scores of other awards for her work on carbon, part of which laid the foundation for two Nobel prizes. Dresselhaus herself has yet to win The Big One—though she tops a shortlist of female physicists who shoulda.

Dresselhaus grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s, then went to Hunter College with the goal of becoming a schoolteacher. But then she took a class with Rosalyn Yalow, a scientific titan who would to win a Nobel Prize in physiology. Yalow convinced Dresselhaus to major in science—any science.

And so Dresselhaus picked physics, going on to graduate school at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s. She crossed paths with Enrico Fermi, a person she has said influenced her research, and in 2012, she picked up the Department of Energy award named after him. Dresselhaus was behind early investigations into the electric properties of graphite—the stuff in pencil tips—and her work led to the discovery of graphene, the atom-thin carbon sheets that are expected to revolutionize the way we work with electronics.

Dresselhaus joined the MIT Lincoln Lab in the 1960s. She has said it was one of the places that at the time that gave Dresselhaus as well as her husband—also a physicist—an appointment as a pair. She went on to lead research in carbon structures, mentor more than 60 graduate students, and support the work of women in science.

Other luminaries awarded the medal today are Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, dancer Alvin Ailey, and musician Stevie Wonder.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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