Mildred Dresselhaus was born and grew up in New York City. She received her PhD degree at the University of Chicago in 1958. She joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1967 and the Department of Physics in 1983, and was named Institute Professor in 1985. Her research has covered a wide range of problems in the physics of solids with special attention to nanoscience.
The following interview of Prof. Dresselhaus (MD) by the Faculty Newsletter (FNL) was conducted on January 20, 2006.
FNL: I see that you’re an Institute Professor. How does that differ from a regular professorship?
MD: One of the great things about being an Institute Professor is that you’re encouraged to do state-of-the-art research and to do other things that will have an impact on science, society, and whatever. Obviously we have MIT values and needs that are utmost on our radar screen, but I think Institute Professors are given a message that we should try to do unique things.
And what happened to me personally that gave me even more emphasis to go into unique things recently was the Heinz Award that I got last year. That award was for science and research that I’ve done. Yet the work that I do is science-oriented but with an impact on technology. My award was in two other areas as well, areas you would think I have no impact on at all. One of them is economics and the other one is employment. It’s a three-prong award, and it’s the only science award given by the Heinz Foundation. And although they never tell you what they have in mind, I think that the work that I’ve done over the years promoting women in science was something that grabbed the fancy of the selection committee. But I think it’s not only that; I think that it’s also work I do in public policy, science policy issues, and general service to the nation.
FNL: So your work is really quite interdisciplinary in nature.
MD: That’s right. It’s sort of physics based, but I work on advanced materials and nowadays what is called nanomaterials. And then I have electrical applications.
Regarding academic departments, I also have students from Chemistry in addition to Physics, EECS, and Materials Science and Engineering. And I’m on thesis committees for Mechanical Engineering because I study nano heat transfer.
I do like seeing the differences in the workings of these departments. Interdisciplinary research is a good thing for the students and it’s a good thing for the faculty, because they get a broader view.
FNL: One thing that’s changed over the last several years are the alliances we form with industry, where the people who are giving us money are really looking for some kind of end product rather than more basic research.
MD: Well, I’d like to address that, because that’s not so much an MIT thing alone. That’s a national thing at the moment or even international because other countries look to us often with envy regarding technology transfer. And we at MIT should understand what we’re doing in this arena and also how our policies and procedures protect us and protect the students, so that we give them what we think is a good foundation. I’m a firm believer that students have to have some roots in some discipline or get some mastery of material that they know in some depth, so that they are very comfortable there and can branch out into many different directions from that focal point.
I think that all these new types of research sponsors that we have now are the trend of the times. When we look at the national figures on who’s supporting research in this country, we see that R&D support used to be two-thirds federal and now it’s probably less than half federal, and industry and other entities, foundations and so forth, are putting in a very significant amount of money. And even foreign countries are putting in money for the work that we do here. And they may have their own interests in mind, not necessarily the interest of our students. But we’re here to educate students. That’s our primary goal.
FNL: Earlier you mentioned your work with women in science. How do you think that has changed over time?
MD: When I first came to MIT and was appointed as a professor here, 4% of the undergraduate student body were women. And for the graduate students it was less than that. So you can imagine that you saw very few women in the daily classroom. And we had almost no women faculty. We were less than 10, I think, when we started. We were really a minority. What was so important for the students that I met was that during their classroom time or in their research groups they never saw another woman.
Most of the classes that I taught were comprised of all men. And if we had a woman student, she would be isolated in the classroom with empty seats around her.
And so the women felt isolated from the other students in the class, and the professors were not comfortable and familiar with them either. The feedback I got was that many male faculty in the 1960s didn’t know how to work with women as research students. So I used to have mentoring sessions in my office and discuss what do you do when this or that happens. And I was working hard to get networking for them to meet each other across departments, across different areas of research.
FNL: What about the early ‘90s and the Women in Science report by Nancy Hopkins and her colleagues?
MD: At the time of the study I personally had thought we had overcome most of the earlier barriers. But when we sat down around the table before that committee ever was formed – and these women at the table were tenured women faculty with quite a bit of impact on their professions both inside and outside of MIT – people were saying how our lives were not equivalent, that our experience here was just second class to male faculty in some ways. And then the report showed that our impressions had some basis. The outcome was different than I expected. I thought we had gotten further in reaching equality than what the data showed. And the administration stepped up to the plate, I thought, to give us more equal status.
FNL: Why do you think you were so surprised by the results of the Women in Science report?
MD: For those of us who had been here for a long time, we just saw the changing scene and we thought that we had reached a very comfortable level, primarily because the academic performance of women students was equal to men in every department, and the probability for women faculty to get tenure was equal. I thought that after we had a critical mass of students in each and every department (at least 15%), which we had by the mid ‘80s – I thought that that would be enough to make things happen. But it turned out that Nancy was right, that it wasn’t enough.
What came back to us was that women faculty were not getting the information from their departments that they got when we got together in the 1970s and 1980s and talked – information about what the tenure process was and what was important, how to get grants, and those kinds of issues.
FNL: And how would you assess the situation now?
MD: Well, I think that what happened is that the Nancy Hopkins report and what the Institute has done in response to the report has just had a huge impact, because I think women students and faculty are much more respected now as equal members of the establishment here.
FNL: I’m interested in your thoughts about President Hockfield.
MD: I think she’s very thoughtful. She keeps sending us our own faculty email. And she seems very open. When she was starting out she interviewed quite a few of us – I was one of them – and we spent a lot of time together talking about MIT. She was trying very hard to learn our culture. I was a little surprised, actually, that we would have a woman president while I was still here, because when I came to MIT we were so far from ever thinking about a woman president or even a woman dean. And now we have women department heads and many on Academic Council.
And Susan Hockfield is committed to promoting all students. I know she takes an interest in women students, but not only women students. And she participates in life at MIT, because she’s kind of one of us, in a way. At least in her early career she went through a time when we didn’t have so many women in the academic line. And so she’s been through much of what I described before.
FNL: I understand that you are in your office 5:00 o’clock, 5:30 every morning.
MD: Oh, maybe more like 5:45. [LAUGHTER] But yes. My schedule is a little bit unusual for an MIT professor. I’m an amateur musician; I play violin, mostly, but also viola as a pinch hitter. And most evenings I have a musical event going on that’s usually at my house. And if you have a musical commitment at night you have to leave the lab around 5:30 to get it all in. And then I also have to get some work done, and after 9:00 a.m. this place is crazy and there are few opportunities for serious work. So I have to add some time, like three hours before 9:00 a.m., to get some of my own things done. So, that’s how I have the schedule that I do.
FNL: I know you work with many international students and travel internationally, and I was wondering if you’ve seen much impact since 9/11 and the Patriot Act.
MD: I think that the students from other countries, at least to some degree, are in some ways discouraged from coming here. At the same time there are also more opportunities in other places than before. It still is the case for many countries that if you want to be an academician they pretty much expect that you’ve had a couple of years either in the U.S. or some other really good place in your field. And it used to be that the U.S. was the predominant place that people came, but now going to another European Union country is easier and it’s encouraged. And there are funds for doing it; there are many incentives offered. And we don’t have those incentives for them here. Now we have even some discouragement, but still students from abroad like to come here and seem to do well once they are here.
There are, however, factors that are working against the U.S. maintaining a high level at the cutting-edge. Our funding situation, at least in my field, has not been very attractive. And it discourages people from going into the field because they see how we struggle to make ends meet. So I think that we’re headed for some serious problems in the future and I think that this is a topic that needs the highest level of attention from our country, our national leaders, because the research that we do brings new industry to the U.S. It isn’t just that we’re in an ivory tower here.
FNL: And what are you working on right now?
MD: I’m now leading a national study – I’m always involved with some national study or other. I’m chairman of the Board of the American Institute of Physics so I have a lot of responsibilities for that. But I’m now just starting a new study on condensed matter and materials physics, one of the decadal studies that the National Academy has been doing for many years. But I’m also doing a lot of other things. I’m very busy, but I have a good life.
That’s the other thing; it’s that I think most of the people here on the faculty really love what they’re doing. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. I like doing a certain amount of these various service kinds of things. I think most MIT faculty apply the uniqueness criteria, what can I do that’s special? When I’m asked to do something and if I think somebody else can do it, I usually don’t do it. But when something comes along and I think I might have a special knack for it. . . . And here is another place where the women faculty look at things differently. It’s that I might be the first woman that has been asked to do this ever. It’s important for us to get these things going, to show that we can do it too.
FNL: Well, thank you very much.