The Queens of Carbon lives on.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

In College, I wanted to be a Chemist, more precisely an Organic Chemist. I was fascinated by the abilities of Carbon to generate different forms and shapes. Versatility of this simple element was the basis of our existence. Carbon was life. 

As early as elementary school, I learned that diamond is one of the hardest forms of carbon, while graphite is very soft, and used in pencils. Carbon was a master of shapes and forms. 

I learned about fullerens in the mid 2000s, specifically the famous byckyball. Fullerens are simply different forms of Carbon connected by chemical bonds forming spheres, tubes, and other shapes. Some examples of fullerens are Carbon structures made of 60 or 70 Carbon atoms. H. W. Kroto, R. E. Smalley, and R. F. Curl were awarded the Nobel Price for their discovery.  

I learned recently that a woman contributed to many of the discoveries related to the use of carbon, especially graphite. I read about Mildred Spiewak, also known as Millie Dresselhaus in the book by Maia Weinstock, Carbon Queen. Maia was invited to give an overview of her job and career at one of the career panels organized by my work. I did not read her book until a few days ago, and I was fully amazed. Maia’s writing is very clear and precise, something I still aspire to learn. With every chapter I wanted to learn more about Millie and her life. 

Millie Dresselhaus was brilliant, self-taught, and extremely motivated. What really struck me about her story was how despite her excellent academic performance she ended up in Hunter College, a school with no or very limited experimental research. I felt like I was reading about myself. I thought nobody could understand the frustration I felt, when I had to attend one of the public Colleges myself, but here she was. Over 70 years before me, a person with a similar dilemma. Somehow her story put me at ease. If she can do it, I can try also. 

Mildred Dresselhaus lecturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.Credit: MIT Museum.

Although Millie was not an immigrant herself, her immigrant family struggled financially. Immigrant beginnings are often hard. I am sure we both shared the disappointment of not being able to attend a private College, but I think both of us had the same goal: to get the best education with what was available. 

Finding female scientists even in the early 2000s was still tough. Most female run laboratories were very limited on space and funding, at least in my College. They also faced different struggles, many juggled childcare, and had many teaching requirements. I never fully understood why women were facing negative attitudes, but nevertheless many issues facing female scientists have not fully disappeared. 

I am still trying to find my true place. To me, the thrill of discovery is an addiction, as you may be the first in the world to learn something new about how life on this planet works. I am a Biologist, and I hope to see a brighter future for female academic scientists. 

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Millie was extremely lucky, the support she received early in her career, and throughout her life was life changing. As a College student, I yearned to have a supportive female mentor. It did not happen for various reasons, but I fully understand why gender representation in the Sciences really matters. There is something to be said about seeing people like you who have your dream job. 

More importantly, I learned that despite her struggles, Millie had a very positive outlook on life.  Even today, I often struggle with my place in the Sciences. I see countless colleagues leaving academia, finding opportunities in other fields. They are deterred by the low wages, lack of funding, and difficulty securing an academic position. All valid reasons. 

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., to Mildred Dresselhaus at the White House in 2014.

Critically, Millie was sending an important message to all scientists, be a supportive mentor, and your students will return the favor. 

Sadly Millie is no longer with us, but her legacy surrounds us. Her scientific legacy can be found in over 1,700 articles, 8 books, and countless students she mentored over the years. Her contributions to our understanding of the chemistry of Carbon made many of our everyday electronics possible. Next time you look at your phone, know she was also a part of its creation.


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