Dresselhaus’s personal style seems incongruous with her track record as a high-powered physics professor who helped push the frontiers for women in science. Dressed in an old-fashioned skirt and blouse, with her gray hair pulled back in a braided bun, she has a calm, humble manner.
Dresselhaus came to MIT in 1960 as a staff scientist at Lincoln Laboratory. When she arrived, there were only a handful of female tenured professors at the Institute, but she says she never felt at a disadvantage. “I know you’re thinking that we had a hard time when we came here,” she says, “but that’s not at all true. We were very well accepted for what we were doing.”
And she was doing a lot: she’s one of the nation’s leading experts in carbon science and has done groundbreaking research in thermoelectricity and superconductivity. In recent years, she headed a nationwide U.S. Department of Energy study on hydrogen production, storage, and use; the findings have kept her at the forefront of the global quest for sustainable energy sources.
Although women were well accepted when Dresselhaus arrived at MIT, in the United States there were still far fewer women in science and engineering fields than men. For more than three decades, Dresselhaus has been instrumental in promoting opportunities for women in science. She was awarded the Carnegie Foundation grant in 1973 to encourage women to study and seek careers in traditionally male-dominated disciplines, and for many years she held the Abby Rockefeller Mauze chair – a professorship endowed in support of women in science and engineering.
She made efforts to create additional on-campus housing for women, which helped balance enrollment and, as a result, evened out admissions requirements. (The scarcity of housing had made it tougher for women to gain admission.) She started the Women’s Forum, in which female faculty and staff convene to discuss issues of concern; and she created an undergraduate mentoring course that featured guest speakers who often spoke about overcoming obstacles.
For more than 20 years, Dresselhaus has had an appointment at MIT that doesn’t require her to teach; nevertheless, she continued teaching until 2003. Her office is piled high with stacks of papers – a state she attributes to her three books in progress – and her shelves are lined with three-dimensional crystal-structure models interspersed with statuettes and other “toys” that her students have given her. “I’ve had a lot of students here, and they are like my children,” she says. “I like to have their things strewn around the place; it’s kind of nice.”
It’s not uncommon for Institute Professors to continue teaching after their selection or to return to teaching later in life after illustrious careers in science and politics. One wall of John Deutch’s office is arrayed with photographs: Deutch shaking hands with five former presidents; Deutch arm in arm with Bill Clinton. An energy bill he helped pass is displayed like a diploma. Deutch is a former director of the CIA; he’s held a series of positions in the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense since the 1970s. He’s an overseer of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At MIT, he has served as chairman of the Department of Chemistry, dean of science, and provost. But first and foremost, he says, he’s a professor.