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Queen of Carbon Leaves Legacy of Women in Science

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama awards MIT professor emeritus Mildred Dresselhaus, a world-renowned carbon physicist famous for her discovery of graphene.

Mildred Dresselhaus - a pioneer of nanoscience, often called the Queen of Carbon for her groundbreaking studies of that element – died last week at the age of 86. Her work on the properties of thin layers and tubes of carbon laid the groundwork for carbon nanotubes found today in batteries, cars, sports equipment, biomedical devices, solar panels and the space program.

Dresselhaus was the first woman to become a fully tenured professor and then an Institute Professor at MIT, and the first woman to win the National Medal of Science for contributions in engineering. She won the Kavli Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dresselhaus was also a dedicated supporter of women in science. Just one mark of her legacy is the fact that her granddaughter, Leora Cooper, is now a graduate student at MIT. She says her grandmother had a particular approach to mentoring and supporting other women.

“It’s not about making science, on average, friendlier to everyone,” Cooper said. “It’s about reaching out to specific women – specific women who reach out to you – and saying ‘let me make this better for you. Let’s find a way to make this better for you.’”

Cooper says that, in her own case, her grandmother (whom she, like many others, refers to as “Millie”) didn’t push her to pursue a career in science. She simply led by example.

Dresselhaus was featured in a recent ad for GE that asked what the world would be like if women scientists were treated like movie stars. Cooper says she was never comfortable with the ad - the premise or the result - because she saw herself as being about substance, not glitz and glam.

"But I think once she saw the impact it was having, once she saw the way people are reacting to it, I think that she would understand immediately and be very happy," said Cooper. "She was always willing to take a risk, to push herself just beyond where she felt comfortable, if it meant she could reach people in a way that she had not been able to before."