Symposium in honor of Institute Professor Millie Dresselhaus

Sunday, November 26, 2017

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon!

Gene – I’m so glad to see you. (I am certain everyone here knows Gene.  But, just in case, for those who may not know him, Gene was Millie’s husband, her closest collaborator and her most devoted fan.)

Marianne. Carl. Paul. Eliot. And all the family! We are so grateful to join you in this celebration of Millie’s remarkable life.

And to all of Millie’s friends and admirers, right here with us, in the overflow rooms and watching around the world, welcome!

Today, many speakers will convey the story of Millie’s life, her work and her service. So I will simply attempt to capture a few of the qualities that made Millie so important to me, to everyone fortunate enough to have her as a mentor and to this community she loved so much.


I first came to know Millie through the loving power of her red pen. (In retrospect, I think she reserved that red pen for people like me.) I was a brand-new faculty member, assigned to the Center for Materials Science and Engineering. The director was Millie. She was famous already (but maybe not yet super-famous).

When I was writing my first grant proposal Millie offered to look it over.

The next day, it was back on my desk, covered with her excellent questions and thoughtful corrections and showing me, with every stroke of her red pen, that she was someone of rare insight and incredible kindness.

I was stunned. I simply could not believe that a person of such stature would take the time to help a junior professor, someone just starting out, a stranger from another country.

But that was just Millie. Driven. Incredibly hardworking. But so warm. So generous. Aware of her own good fortune. And completely down to earth.

If you ever saw her office, and I am sure almost everyone here did, you know that every surface, floor included, was covered by mountains of paper. All of which she read!
And all of which she annotated! Including every page of every tenure case she ever voted on.

So I would say that the first thing Millie taught me was the power of noticing.

Noticing patterns that others don’t see is essential to being a great scientist. And Millie surely had that gift.

But she used her amazing mind and heart to notice people, too.

From her own experience, she knew that being noticed, by the right person, at the right time, could change your life. In college, she was noticed, and encouraged, by her professor, Rosalyn Yalow, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize. In graduate school, Millie was noticed by another legendary Nobel laureate, Enrico Fermi. Because they lived in the same Chicago neighborhood, he and Millie would walk to campus together every day, talking shop.

So Millie made it part of her life’s work to notice others – especially women students and faculty.

I should be clear: Being noticed by Millie didn’t necessarily mean that you were a genius. (Remember, she noticed me!) Millie definitely had an eye for talent. But she also made a point of reaching out to graduate students who were struggling, to bring them into the wonderful community of her lab.

And when she walked back and forth between Building 13 and Building 38, she always made sure that some younger person walked with her, to give them a chance to talk.

Many of those Millie “noticed” have gone on to great success. And many carry on her beautiful tradition of reaching down the ladder to help the next person climb up.

To honor her memory, every one of us can do that, too.

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So I will always admire Millie’s capacity for noticing. However, she had an equal gift, in the opposite direction: a gift for ignoring.

For example, here are some things Millie was told when she was young:

  • That “women have no place in science.”
  • That “women cannot teach engineers.”
  • That for a woman scientist, having four children is “excessive.”
  • And that carbon is too hard to study. And also, it’s boring.

Because Millie was so good at ignoring such nonsense, she became the first woman at MIT to be tenured as a full professor and the first to become an Institute Professor, the highest distinction awarded by MIT. She became the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering. She became, with Gene, the co-author of four children, as well as hundreds of scientific papers. And she became perhaps the lead pioneer in the field of carbon science.

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For her achievements in science and engineering, Millie earned exceptional honors:

  • The Fermi Prize
  • The Kavli Prize
  • The IEEE Founders Medal
  • Thirty-eight honorary degrees. And on and on!
  • She led the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • She advised three US presidents, and chaired numerous influential national commissions.

But of all her distinctions, my favorite is the one she received in 2014 from President Obama: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(Incidentally, Millie was one of only four MIT faculty members ever awarded this honor – including her old friend, Doc Edgerton.)

The Medal of Freedom is the greatest civilian honor in the United States. I believe Millie earned this distinction because the way she led her life in science, represented citizenship in the finest sense. In the best MIT tradition, Millie embodied the highest standards of boldness, creativity and rigor. She uncovered new knowledge, and helped bring it to bear on the world’s great challenges, for the benefit of humankind…and she taught generations of students to do the same. And when her talents could help the nation, she was eager to serve.

Personally and professionally, Millie always took the time to do the right thing. Joyful, delightful, musical, kind, she was devoted to her family and she somehow made the rest of us feel like family, too.

Her example gives every one of us something to aspire to.

So I will close by sharing, by video, a vision of what the world might be like if everybody knew “our Millie.”