The Human Face of the Carbon Queen

In my Twitter feed, there has been much publicity about the recent biography of US physicist and electrical engineer Millie Dresselhaus, Carbon Queen, by Maia Weinstock. Dresselhaus’ lifetime of research spanned over five decades, studying many different forms of carbon, from graphite to graphene via nanotubes. I never met Dresselhaus to my knowledge, though I find it hard to believe we didn’t attend one of the huge APS meetings at the same time, but I believe I once met Weinstock at a meeting held at the Royal Society (although that may be an inaccurate memory). The book is an interesting read, and very easy to get stuck into. But more than the style, there are the stories about the life this remarkable woman led at a time when women were considerably thinner on the ground in Physics/Electrical Engineering than they are now. For instance, she spent a year at Harvard taking science classes, because Radcliffe – where she was enrolled from 1952 – couldn’t provide any teaching in the sciences. Of this time, she said (all her quotes are taken from the book):

‘I felt a little odd because women were still very, very much in the minority, and in some classes I was the only one.’

Furthermore, women

‘had to take their exams together in the same room [i.e separately from the men] because their presence in a coed examination setting was thought too distracting for the men.’

Her PhD supervisor (at the University of Chicago) felt that women had no place in science and told Dresselhaus so, indicating he believed giving women fellowships or other recognition was simply a ‘waste of resources’. That attitude was probably not that unusual at the time, or indeed for many years thereafter, with Weinstock quoting a 1976 article on women in engineering (in Cosmopolitan) that claimed a department head had  said

‘a lot of the technical education we’re giving women today is going to be wasted. They’ll get married, have children, and their period of productivity won’t last more than a few years.’

Dresselhaus got married – to a fellow researcher in the same broad discipline, with whom she collaborated extensively  – and had four children. Her career spanned more than fifty years of research at the top of her field. Despite that prediction about women in general, she barely stopped working even when she gave birth, taking only a few days off in total around her four children.

In due course, Dresselhaus joined the MIT faculty, becoming a tenured professor in Electrical Engineering in 1968, the first woman to be appointed full professor in any of the engineering departments. (That fact doesn’t surprise me: when I interviewed, and was subsequently offered, a faculty position in Cornell’s Materials Science and Engineering Department in 1982, I would have become the first woman faculty in Engineering there had I gone. In the end, of course, I didn’t go back to Cornell, where I had held two postdoc positions, and I don’t know who did become that first woman there.) About her appointment she made a curious quote:

‘I had very low expectations for myself. It wasn’t until I became a full professor in the prestigious MIT electrical engineering department that I began to take my career seriously.’

Was this a case of impostor syndrome, or simply a lack of role models to lead her to think that she too, as a woman, could make a go of a career? (Clearly role models would have been in short supply, although future Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow had briefly taught her at college and given her much encouragement to persist, despite the difficulties for women at the time.)  It isn’t obvious to me which interpretation is right, but make a go of it she did, publishing numerous trail-blazing papers and winning honours and other accolades throughout her life.

In 1999 MIT produced a seminal and ground-breaking report: A Study of the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT (I’ve written about this report before, at the time its follow-up was published in 2011). This report was prompted by the findings of molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins, who explored gender differences in the allocation of various resources, as well as women’s personal experiences. When I read this report in 1999, I realised how much the situation described echoed my own experiences, although I had not internalised that there were systemic biases at play, as opposed to (or, at least, in addition to) my own failings. The abstract to the report explicitly stated

‘many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT.’

That second sentence is very important in my eyes. Life does not necessarily get easier as you progress, although the issues a woman faces may alter over time and undoubtedly some women do have an easier time, not least, because they are less likely to suffer from sexual harassment, as someone spelled out to me recently. It is clear from the book that Dresselhaus’s reaction to the report, at the time, was similar to mine; she wasn’t involved in the study itself, since she was in the Faculty of Engineering. It made her realise that the problems she encountered were not simply of her making. An MIT alumna described her reaction:

‘I saw her change her opinions as she began to recall incidents…that she’d previously managed to ignore. I think that sort of blindness had served a useful purpose for her in the first part of that career.’

It stimulated her to recognize that she had a role to play in supporting the women around her, and that she did for the rest of her life. Weinstock’s book makes clear just how much she did to encourage, mentor and sponsor younger women whose paths crossed hers, whether or not there was any formal connection. Not only with a wonderful reputation in research and teaching, she mentored many women on to success, as well as acting as an incredibly visible role model.  She seems to have run her research group rather like an extended family, with many social occasions to help her students along.

Those generations of women who came after her in Physics/Engineering owe her a huge debt, because she was so visible, so determined and so helpful. If you want to know more, I recommend this book.


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1 Response to The Human Face of the Carbon Queen

  1. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Millie Dresselhaus was an extraordinary physicist surrounded by other extraordinary physicists and administrators who were also socially generous and forward thinkers. Immediate contemporaries were:

    Bernard Feld

    Claude Canizaris

    Rainer Weiss

    Francis Lowe

    Marilyn Pierce

    My husband knew Dresselhaus through one of his friends who worked in her lab. In his experience, Dresselhaus was very humble and welcoming.

    Marilyn Pierce, who died just recently, was a force of nature. She was the graduate school administrator at MIT for 43 years, who fought tirelessly for women and all students in the EE/CS department. She was a real people person with an acute memory for detail.

    The 1999 Report was proceeded by another report in 1983: “Barriers to Equality: Women in Computer Science at MIT”. It was Marilyn Pierce who spearheaded the need for this report.

    I think it is important to note the environment in which Dresselhaus developed her career. This environment was relatively supportive compared to many other engineering and physics departments at the time.

    I would also be curious as to how Dresselhaus managed to work during the years that her children were young. We don’t really know how she managed this. I haven’t read the book, but I would be interested in this particular aspect of her career. It is unusual for women to be able to raise four children and not have some career impact. The few cases that i know where women worked straight through the time that their children were young had access to a full time nanny or close relative acting in the nanny role. Today, this is out of reach for most early career researchers. I worry about the conflict that we are placing women in when we ask them to downplay mothering in the early critical years of their children.

    Regarding harassment, mentioned in the above post, statistics indicate that a majority of women in male dominated STEM fields are harassed/bullied to some extent. So the notion that only some women are harassed/bullied, a comment I often encounter on twitter, is ill founded. A phenomena I’ve noticed in the last few years on twitter from younger scientists (often outside of computer science, engineering and physics) is that older more established women engineers and scientists do not experience harassment and bullying and must have reached their positions due to privilege.

    These are the mixed messages women and girls are given today when they are considering engineering and physics:

    -be confident

    -you need more role models

    -don’t talk about the real challenges of navigating a young family with a professional career where your work schedule is supposed to look like a man with no family responsibilities or with a full time wife

    -harassment is there but if you report it, chances are, it will derail your career

    -if you manage to succeed and advance, even a little bit, it is due to privilege and not hard work, ability and often sacrifice

    -throughout your career, you will deal constantly with people, self appointed experts, and the press saying that women have less aptitude for STEM subjects. This will affect how you are viewed by your peers, potential mentors and potential employers, but again, if you talk about it, this will negatively affect your career

    All of this is to say that I am not surprised that today, many young women are not excited about studying physics and engineering.

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