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'Queen Of Carbon' Among Medal Of Freedom Honorees


And we're going to meet one of the other recipients of this year's Medal of Freedom. She's known in science circles as the Queen of Carbon, but she's a little more modest.

MILDRED DRESSELHAUS: Most people call me just by my first name, Millie (laughter).

CORNISH: Millie is Mildred Dresselhaus. She's 84 and a professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. She got her nickname because much of her life's work has focused on the properties of carbon. Her research has paved the way for the rise of nanotechnology. Dresselhaus grew up in the Bronx, New York and attended public school through junior high. She said she was 13 when she realized she could be getting more out of her education. Dresselhaus transferred to Hunter College High School, one of the top preparatory schools in the country, after passing the entrance exams and acing the math portion.

DRESSELHAUS: It didn't take very long to catch up with math. That was easy and all the other classes were more difficult so I'd figured that was where my talents were.

CORNISH: She figured right. She credits part of her success to the teachings of physicist Enrico Fermi, whom she met as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

DRESSELHAUS: It was just brilliance and clarity. That was, I would say the bottom line. In his class, nobody took notes. He didn't allow that. You had to listen to him.

CORNISH: Dresselhaus says she walked the same route to the laboratory on campus as Fermi did.

DRESSELHAUS: He was an early riser and I was an early riser so we both were walking at about the same time and he recognized me and would come across the street and walk with me - so that was my introduction to science. Amazing, isn't it?

CORNISH: Since then, Dresselhaus gone on to win several prestigious awards, including the Enrico Fermi award in 2012 named after her mentor and professor and the National Medal of Science in 1990. Her scientific breakthroughs came as she and her husband Gene raised four children and she told us it was her husband, a fellow physicist, who helped make it possible. She says he encouraged her when others didn't.

DRESSELHAUS: Having a career and family is not uncommon, but at that time, having a full-time job - and a demanding job - that was kind of unusual.

CORNISH: What has been in your advice to young women entering these fields today?

DRESSELHAUS: Well, I think that entering the field of science is really almost the best career they can have. And what's the reason for it? There are two reasons. One, the work is very interesting and secondly, you're judged by what you do and not what you look like and I think that that is a very important thing for women in science. The sad thing is that so few women choose it because there aren't so many of us and they don't like to be outnumbered by the men.

CORNISH: Looking back on your research with this award - the Presidential Medal of Freedom - what would you like your legacy to be as a scientist, or even as a woman scientist?

DRESSELHAUS: Well, I don't really think of my legacy. I'm still working and not thinking about my legacy. I just passed my 84th birthday. Many people at my age retire, but I'm still working and I try to be a good mother and a good grandmother. We have five grandchildren now and I've enjoyed all aspects, and I spent many hours at MIT telling young women that they could do the same.

CORNISH: That's physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, one of this year's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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