Pioneers in science: Millie Dresselhaus

by | Nov 4, 2021

The "Queen of Carbon" made her mark on solid state physics, but no less important is the impact she had as an inclusive and inspirational teacher.
sketched portrait of Millie Dresselhaus

Illustration by Kieran O’Brien

When Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus passed away in February 2017, she left behind an indelible legacy. The “Queen of Carbon” pioneered the physical study of the sixth element well before the keen attention attracted by fullerenes and nanotubes. When these exotic carbon compounds arrived on the scene, she became a world-leading expert on them, coauthoring the standard textbook. Her groundwork ensured that when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov isolated and characterized graphene, they were a shoo-in for the 2010 Nobel Prize.

Dresselhaus also earned renown advocating for women in science. She was the first woman to be named an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and she pioneered leadership roles for women in many of the professional societies and organizations to which she belonged. Here, I focus on a less noted (though no less noteworthy) aspect of her legacy: her influence as a teacher.

Physics curricula often feature an intentionally brutal “weed-out” course, designed to deter students who lack mathematical preparation and cannot acquire it quickly enough. This practice, a legacy of over-subscribed Cold War–era courses, has little to recommend it in an era when physics programs struggle to keep up with larger enrollments in biology.

The skyrocketing cachet of a physics degree packed physics classrooms with students during the Cold War. University teachers responded by retreating from one-on-one mentorship. They taught larger classes that drilled students in mathematical techniques, which could be taught through large lectures and assessed straightforwardly with written examinations. Students would have to develop mathematical skills quickly, with little direct oversight, or risk washing out.

In the heyday of the shut-up-and-calculate attitude, Dresselhaus developed a way to teach physics that was supportive and inclusive while still being demanding and rigorous. Veterans of Dresselhaus’ solid state theory course at MIT remember it as a model of clarity, and the scores of Ph.D.s and countless visiting students she supervised speak to the fruitfulness of her educational philosophy.

Dresselhaus became a remarkable teacher in part because she was a remarkable learner. She credited museums with turning her into a scientist. She grew up in New York City, where the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others allowed free admission, and the keen teenager could scurry among them on the subway for a nickel a ride, with the money she’d earned working in a zipper factory. She also snuck past the ticket booth at the Hayden Planetarium repeatedly, committing its shows and collections to memory.

New York’s public resources again served Dresselhaus well when it came time to select a high school. Her under-resourced grade school in the Bronx had little knowledge of how to funnel talented students into the city’s magnet schools for high-achieving students, but her older brother, who attended the Bronx High School of Science, made her aware of the opportunity for girls to apply to the Hunter College High School. “I wrote away for information and got some old exams and looked at them,” Dresselhaus recalled. “I didn’t know what anything was. I couldn’t even understand the language on these exams; it was like another world. But, New York has very good libraries.… I checked out books and got to work, and I figured out how to do all these problems. I took the exam, and I got into the school.”

When Dresselhaus told this story, she didn’t emphasize her own impressive initiative. Rather, she reflected on the importance of those institutions for allowing her to flourish. That focus on supportive resources would directly inform her work as a teacher.

Course design

A set of course notes from 1972 provide crucial insight into how Dresselhaus introduced the theory of solids. Her course adopted Charles Kittel’s Introduction to Solid State Physics as its principal textbook. This book had first appeared in 1955, reflecting the strong applied inflection solid state physics had taken on after World War II. In that respect, it contrasted the previous standard, Frederick Seitz’s Modern Theory of Solids. As John J. Hopfield recalls of his training at Cornell in the 1950s, Kittel’s exposition “left you (as a theorist) with no idea of where to start to develop a deeper understanding of any of the topics covered.” Dresselhaus addressed these shortcomings by supplementing Kittel’s book with 302 pages of hand-written, photocopied notes.

The notes begin with a methodical presentation of crystal structure and lattice dynamics before leading into a detailed presentation of the electronic states of solids, which the course dwelled upon because “for most of the practical applications of solids to our technological development, it is probably the electronic properties that are of the greatest interest.”

Each section begins with a qualitative description of the phenomena under investigation, usually with some reference to relevant experimental techniques. Dresselhaus adopted the visual style found in Principles of the Theory of Solids by John Ziman and reproduced many of its figures. Modern Theory of Solids, and other books that took a more abstract approach, were relegated to the “Other Suggested References” section.

Dresselhaus’s own recollection of the role this course came to play at MIT is worth quoting at length:

“We had a following of the electrical engineering students and the physics students. In more recent times [mid-1970s], we’ve made the courses all a joint course between physics and electrical engineering. When I first came to the Institute in the Electrical Engineering Department, there was a lot of applied work. What needed help was the teaching of basic solid state courses because these courses weren’t being done in the Physics Department. That was an area of the Physics Depart- ment that was not much emphasized at the time. So, there were inadequate courses available in the physics of solids. I helped in setting up courses in those areas.”

Solid state in the MIT physics department was the province of John Clarke Slater’s solid state and molecular theory group. Using the newest computers to attempt increasingly exact ab initio calculations of wave functions for solids and molecules, this group advanced a brand of solid-state theory too abstract for most engineering undergraduates. In Dresselhaus’s more pointed phrasing: “Slater’s group taught Slater physics. He wasn’t interested in the engineering students, and he wasn’t interested in teaching them what they needed to know to solve their problems. So that was my job.” Despite being an international center for solid state physics research, MIT had a dearth of solid-state courses that met the practical needs of its physics and engineering students.

Adherents to the abstract approach to solid state physics, which Slater championed in the physics department, had maintained an uneasy relationship with the applied arm of the field since it was established as a distinct area of physics in the late 1940s. Dresselhaus’s move to MIT unfolded amid that context.

Solid state physics was struggling with its identity as a subdiscipline of physics; it had been founded to create greater representation for applied and industrial researchers, but many of its practitioners continued to fight for recognition as a fundamental physicsts, and shied away from the field’s practical dimensions. That impulse created an opportunity; Dresselhaus’s willingness to present the latest in solid-state theory in a way that emphasized its utility for engineers and practically minded physicists addressed the considerable appetite for such a course among MIT students.

Supporting diversity

Conscious of the power of an encouraging environment, Dresselhaus set about changing the Institute in ways that created ambient resources talented people could exploit. Informed by both her own experiences as a learner and her family life, these efforts reflected a model of physics education that few others were pursuing at the time.

Many of these focused on the needs of women at MIT, who were a vast minority. “The few women students that we had were having a really hard time. The dropout rate was very large. They were in classes, and they were harassed by the guys and the professors,” Dresselhaus recalled. Her response was to develop communal resources.

“All the undergraduates could come to my seminar, and we had a mentoring seminar helping them how to cope with being the only girl in the class and how to deal with harassment. They were getting advice from the other ones, how they coped with given situations. We discussed strategies. Many people, they remember this, and they come to me and say how helpful that was in getting through their undergraduate work here.”

The seminar, co-led by the aerospace engineer Sheila Widnall, also provided an orientation to engineering, covering skills, particularly manual skills, that many instructors assumed boys picked up as a matter of course. This component of the seminar also became popular with MIT men, who increasingly arrived at the Institute without such stereotypical backgrounds. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these interventions made a difference; veterans of the seminar reported to Dresselhaus that they were instrumental in keeping them at MIT at junctures when they considered leaving.

This strategy was adapted to the peculiar circumstances women at MIT encountered in the 1970s, but it also reflected Dresselhaus’s general approach to crafting an educational environment. She described importing strategies from her family life into her teaching. Watching how her daughter coped as the lone girl among three brothers informed her implementation of support structures for MIT’s women undergraduates. A similar approach governed how she managed her research group. She instituted a practice that would now be considered routine: regular group meetings. Uncommon at MIT at that time, such meetings were not a habit she had picked up during her own grad student days, where her supervisor’s laissez faire style left students with a great deal of independence.

Instead, Dresselhaus recalled, “I learned this from my children, how I do family. I have four children, and they learn a lot from each other. So I said, ‘Well, students should be the same way.’ If we meet once a week and talk about some interesting thing we were doing for them to report, the other guys will learn about it and it will help them sometime in their career. It was a good idea. Everybody’s doing it now, but at that time nobody was doing it.”

Dresselhaus would subsequently apply this ethos to building other supporting structures for students, and especially for women in science. She helped found the Rising Stars initiative at MIT in 2012, a workshop that brings together women graduate students and postdocs interested in academic careers to share their experience and access mentoring opportunities from established faculty.

Impact

Dresselhaus’s pedagogical success demonstrates that a narrowly calculational approach combined with a sink-or-swim mentality, although reflective of the circumstances, was far from determined by them. Dresselhaus leveraged the abundance of eager physics students by using groups to encourage productive interaction effects among them. She embraced a visual and conceptual approach to solid-state theory that highlighted the link between foundations and applications. And to combat the psychological challenges the sink-or-swim culture exerted on students, especially in women, she recognized the value of sharing tacit knowledge, comparing experiences, and promoting the salutary effects of community.

The manner in which Dresselhaus arrived at MIT, the distinct issues that informed the landscape of solid-state pedagogy, and the ways she navigated them suggest new ways of thinking about the history of physics teaching. Teaching applications was often just as critical as teaching foundations, and initiating students into a culture of collaboration was often just as crucial as teaching them to compete.

And at a moment when cultural institutions are increasingly under threat, Dresselhaus’s childhood is a reminder of the importance of public resources for nurturing talent. The young Dresselhaus was a gifted, self-motivated child of humble means. It would be tempting to suggest that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps—indeed, she showed uncommon gumption. But she deployed it by clambering up the sturdy rungs of public infrastructure, including New York City’s public libraries, public museums, public schools, and the public transit system linking them.

“I know there must be hundreds of thousands of people out there,” she reflected in 1976, who “could have done the same thing, if circumstances were a little different for them.”

Written by: Joseph D. Martin

This article was originally published in Annalen der Physik’s ongoing “Then and now” series, which is dedicated to the history of physics. The article has been modified for this website version.

Access the full article here: Joseph D. Martin, Mildred Dresselhaus and Solid State Pedagogy at MIT, Annelen der Physik (2019). DOI: 10.1002/andp.201900274

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