Retirements of Three Giants

July 1, 2007 marked the formal retirement of three giants in the EECS Department: Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Paul E. Gray and Kenneth N. Stevens. Each of these faculty members served the Department for 45-50+ years, in each case becoming nationally and internationally recognized for her/his passion for what they were doing—research science and engineering, teaching and furthering the cause of science and mankind.

It is fortunate that each one of them is maintaining interest in the Department by continuing to guide remaining PhD candidates, to conduct research and to keep a presence in the Department—a presence that provides the continuity in EECS that makes it so strong. It is also our good fortune that these immensely talented individuals have devoted themselves to the Department despite numerous callings during their careers to appointments elsewhere at the Institute, in national and international scientific organizations, at other universities and in the upper reaches of government and public service.

Millred S. Dresselhaus

Millie Dresselhaus had planned to retire in 2000 when she turned 70. She says that she felt a bit like a ‘little sister’ to Herman Haus, who at five years older, received many similar awards and whose career followed a pattern that she both emulated and found her own path resembled. She notes: “Herman’s retirement meant doing the same thing because ‘I want to.’ The passion is still there, the ideas are still there and we have some role to play that we can see and this is what we really want to do.”

Millie S. Dresselhaus, Institute Professor and world recognized for her leadership and contributions to science and society.  (Photo credit: Micheline Pelletier).

Millie S. Dresselhaus, Institute Professor and world recognized for her leadership and contributions to science and society. (Photo credit: Micheline Pelletier).

But the details between her career and Haus’ then diverged—particularly at the age of 70. When the need for a replacement in the late Clinton administration for Director of the Office of Science at the US Dept. of Energy opened up in 2000, then President of MIT Charles Vest suggested Dresselhaus as the best possible candidate. In just one year in this role, Dresselhaus and her team were able to make numerous strategically valuable advancements for science and engineering. She notes, “It was the first time since the Berlin Wall fell that the physical sciences and engineering went up in funding.”

The other ‘detail’ which arose during this time (when Millie was going to retire) was that she and her lab had discovered a very important scientific phenomenon, “single nanotube spectroscopy.” She describes this period of traveling back and forth from Washington DC to her MIT lab each weekend to work on this advancement as ‘fun and exciting’—the kind of enthusiastic and total involvement that has propelled Dresselhaus throughout her career into ground-breaking research on superconductivity followed by the electronic and structural properties of carbon, thermoelectricity, and most recently, the physics and chemistry of nanoscience.

Dresselhaus notes how today’s role of nanotechnology compares with that of semiconductor electronics in the 60s, when then Dean of Engineering Gordon Brown urged engineering students to get ahead through a solid grounding in the science underpinnings of the electronics explosion. Dresselhaus’ role when she joined the EE department at MIT was to bring more science to the engineering students in the area of semiconductor electronics. Now, a generation later, she compares this period of development with the current nano-oriented science, based on physics, math and chemistry.

Although Dresselhaus is the first to say that she didn’t start out to be a crusader, her coming to the EECS Department as a visiting professor from the Lincoln Labs in 1967 was nevertheless her first step towards better-ing the careers of future women scientists. Within a year she was appointed full professor. Dresselhaus’ ability to advance the status of women in science was furthered in 1973 by a Carnegie Foundation grant and her appointment as the first holder of the (Institute-wide) Abby Rockefeller Mauzé chair, which she retained until she was made an Institute Professor in 1985. Millie notes that the number of women at MIT when she first came was 4% of the total undergraduate population and now it is 45%. “I interpreted the assignment from Abby Rockefeller Mauzé was to do something for increasing the opportunity for women to do science and engineering in an environment that was largely male,” Dresselhaus notes. She had already established the Women’s Forum at MIT in 1970 and using her chair funds, she continued the monthly lunches for women faculty to discuss the tenure process, which she realized was largely missing in their training as new professors. She also worked with Prof. Sheila Widnall in 1973 to start a course “What is Engineering.” This too became quite influential in increasing the number of women entering engineering.

Dresselhaus is the recipient of many awards and distinctions that are enumerated on her home page.

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