Career in Physics

Credit: Robert Neubecker

Reflections of a woman pioneer

OSLO—In her long career as a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus, who is now 83, has researched the electronic structure of carbon in its myriad forms, from bulk graphite to nanotubes. The “Queen of Carbon” received the 2012 Kavli Prize in nanoscience “for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures.” Dresselhaus, who has long championed the cause of women in science, used the $1 million award to create an endowment fund for “women or junior members of the faculty” at MIT. Just yesterday, we learned that she had won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States.

As a member of the Kavli Prize Committee in nanoscience, Dresselhaus was in Oslo for the awards ceremony this year. Science Careers caught up with her for a chat.

Men’s careers wind down when they reach their 70s. Women don’t retire so quickly.

Q: Tell us about your early years at MIT.
A:
I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1958 and married a fellow physicist that year. IBM and MIT were the only two places in the U.S. that would hire a scientist couple. We both joined the research staff of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1960. When I was doing this research job at the high magnetic field lab, I was invited to give occasional lectures on topics in physics to engineering students at the institute. Gradually, I began teaching a semester-long course. In 1967, I became a visiting professor at MIT. Thanks to a fund established by Abby Rockefeller Mauzé, the eldest of the six Rockefeller siblings, I was soon hired full time.

We had very few women professors, particularly in the sciences, and for the most part they didn’t have children. My daughter was born before I joined the institute. I took a total of 5 days off for the birth of my three sons. Now at the institute, and at workplaces nationwide, they have policies in place for such things.

Q: Were there many women students on campus?
A:
Only 4% of all undergraduates were female, a large fraction in biology—far fewer in physics, chemistry, or engineering. Academically, women were doing well. But one thing they mentioned was how isolated they felt. There would be empty seats next to them in class, so they wondered if they belonged there. Male professors didn’t know how to interact with their female research students. We discussed what to do in such situations.

Q: How have things changed?
A:
The biggest change is in the numbers. Now, close to 50% of undergraduates are women. They are no longer concentrated in biology. Attitudes are changing, too. Today, students have their own support groups. They take hold of the situation and try to arrive at solutions.         

Q: Is it just a matter of time until women achieve equal (or near-equal) representation on faculties?
A:
No. That will take much longer.

Q: Why is that?
A:
At graduation, the average academic performance of women at the institute is better than that of men. But some women choose to have less demanding jobs if they start a family or for some other reason. I had children, but I had a very supportive husband and a reliable babysitter, so I didn’t lose time.

If you take time off, you are no longer considered competitive; your publication record isn’t as convincing. Even in biology, where the number of men and women students has been roughly equal for a while now, women are still not equally represented at the faculty level.

Q: Are there hidden barriers to women’s advancement?
A:
Yes. I was a great believer in the idea of a critical mass of female students. With a minimum of 15% in each class, I thought the lack of isolation would be enough. The guys would get it and everything would change automatically. In the 1980s, we were coasting toward these numbers. At the faculty level, men and women seemed to have equal chance of attaining tenure. In 1984, I became president of the American Physical Society and focused less on these women’s liberation-related issues. I genuinely believed I had done something towards bringing us closer to parity in over 15 years.

A decade later, Nancy Hopkins initiated her eye-opening study on the status of women at MIT. The data on pay scales, lab space, and other resources allotted to women showed how wrong I was. I thought numbers alone could stimulate a change in attitudes. Nancy said that we’d have to beat on these guys to change things.

Q: All those inbuilt prejudices! What made you stay on?
A:
The same reason we all stay on: because we love the work. Being a researcher in academia is a great job, and you get paid well for it. I didn’t force anything. It all came in time.

Here’s the interesting thing about women researchers: Once they hit their stride, they don’t want to stop. For many of them, this happens after they are done with the child rearing. Men’s careers wind down when they reach their 70s. Women don’t retire so quickly. I continue to work. So does Brenda Milner, the winner of the 2014 Kavli Prize for neuroscience. She is 96 now.

Q: Is it true that you still come in to work at the crack of dawn?
A:
I arrive at work early, before the morning rush hour in Boston. I learned to play the violin when I was young and continue to play the instrument. We used to play chamber music as a family on Friday nights. On most evenings, I still have musical engagements for which I leave the office around 6 p.m. But the early hours have been my best working time for some years, and remain so.

Q: What would your message be to those women who aspire to be in academia?
A:
Don’t give up. There are equal opportunity laws in this country. There are processes to check if women have been interviewed for the job. Where the selection process is equal, some of you will get the jobs you aspire to get. Once you are on the faculty, you should advance at the same speed. Develop connections with the women who are already in such positions. Be confident. Apply.

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