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Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus is the recipient of the IEEE 2015 Medal of Honor — IEEE’s highest honor, given since 1917. Cited for her “leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering,” Dresselhaus is also the first woman to earn the prestigious award.
When she worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Solid State Division in 1960, Dresselhaus was given the freedom to select her research focus. She chose carbon, with the goal of discovering how it acts at the most fundamental levels. Dresselhaus joined MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering in 1967 and added an appointment to the Department of Physics in 1983; she became Institute Professor in 1985. In 2000-2001, she was the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy. From 2003-2008, she was the chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. She has also served as president of the American Physical Society, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1990, Professor Dresselhaus received the National Medal of Science in recognition of her work on the electronic properties of materials. That year, at a Department of Defense workshop on carbon-materials research, she discussed and then collaborated on studies of single-walled carbon nanotubes, which, with altered geometry, revealed the potential for multiple applications. Her core contributions at that time also extended to low-dimensional thermoelectrics, in response to a request from the U.S. Navy.
“Throughout my career,” Dresselhaus notes, “I have been interested in finding out how the unique properties of new materials beyond silicon could contribute to electronics. My recent research interests involve layered materials like the semimetal graphene, the related wide-gap semiconductor hexagonal boron nitride in its few layered form, the few layered transition metal dichalcogenides which offer a wide variety of properties from semiconductors to metals, to phosphorene, which is a puckered-layer semiconductor.”
Whether in Washington or Cambridge, Dresselhaus has been a leading voice for women’s roles in physics and engineering as well as a mentor for all her students. In 2010, the American Chemical Society presented her with the ACS Award for Encouraging Women in Careers in the Chemical Sciences. As the first woman to be awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor, Dresshelhaus again breaks new ground.
In 2012, Dresselhaus was recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy with the Enrico Fermi Award — for her leadership in condensed matter physics, in energy and science policy, in service to the scientific community, and in mentoring women in the sciences — followed a few months later by the prestigious Kavli Prize for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures. In November 2014, Dresselhaus traveled again to the White House, this time to receive the National Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, from President Barack Obama.