By Amy Ramsden Pizzolatto
Photo courtesy of Mary Ruth Yoe

Mildred T. Dresselhaus, PhD’58, calls science a universal language.

The 2008 recipient of the University of Chicago Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Alumni Medal, Dresselhaus has devoted her life to making science—in particular, physics—more universal through scientific advancements, education and the advocacy of women in science and engineering.

“When I was a student, I had hoped that in some way I would serve physics—my profession—and society through physics,” Dresselhaus says.

Today she not only is a National Medal of Science winner, an institute professor at MIT and an international expert who has conducted groundbreaking research in condensed-matter physics, but also she is partly responsible for improving U.S. admissions policies so that nearly half of science and engineering students today are women.

Women’s Role in Science

“Women didn’t have a lot of opportunities for careers in science when I was in school,” she says, pointing out how grateful she was to have the opportunity to attend Hunter College High School in New York. At Hunter College while she was a math major planning to teach school, she met her mentor, Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Rosalind Yallow, who encouraged her to change her field of study to science. Dresselhaus applied and received a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, then went on to earn her master’s degree at Radcliffe and her PhD at the University of Chicago.

“As a teacher, she was the pioneer of the art of tough love,” says former student Peter Vandervoort, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who presented the Alumni Medal to Dresselhaus at the June 7 Alumni Convocation, along with Professor Heinrich Jaeger of the Department of Physics.

“Her work has been on the cutting edge of physics since the beginning,” Jaeger says.

Describing her early work as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Dresselhaus says, “I sort of started out with a bang because my first piece of work about the effect of the magnetic fields on the surface impedance of a superconductor yielded a result that was in conflict with the BSC Theory, which was supposed to explain superconductivity.”

Even with a successful thesis, however, she wasn’t sure she would have a career in physics. During the 1950s, she says, all scientists, whether men or women, had limited opportunities—that is, until Sputnik in 1957.

Sputnik Sends Physicists into the Workforce

“Because of Sputnik, the U.S government decided all of a sudden they didn’t have enough investment in science,” Dresselhaus says. The field of physics gained a lot of attention after that, and Dresselhaus was easily employed at Cornell University and then MIT. She became a full professor at MIT in 1967.

Dressed in her signature red coat during Alumni Convocation, Dresselhaus thanked the University for helping her achieve her vision. It was especially fitting, says Mitchell Glass, AB’73, MD’77, VP of the Alumni Board of Governors, to award her the Alumni Medal at a time when the “University community is focused both on scientific advancement and leadership opportunities for women.”

But Dresselhaus’s devotion to physics wasn’t motivated only by a desire to change the world. “I tell my students, ’If you feel excited about doing something in life, don’t let anything stop you. Just go out and make it happen.’”

By Amy Ramsden Pizzolatto

More Alumni Award Winners

Read about the additional Alumni Award Winners on the Alumni Convocation 2008 Program (PDF) or at the University of Chicago Chronicle.

Alumni Service Medal

Katharine Bensen, AB’80

Alumni Service Citation

Robert Adamson, SB’45, MD’48 Merilyn Hackett, PhB’45

Young Alumni Service Citation

Michael Mendoza, AB ’96, MD’01 James Stevens, AB’04

Professional Achievement Citation

David Brooks, AB’83 Rebecca Chopp, PhD’83 Gary Hoover, AB’73 Lee Shulman, AB’59, AM’60, PhD’63 Roland Winston, SB’56, SM’57, PhD’63

Public Service Citation

Marshall Bennett AB’42

Norman Maclean Faculty Award

In addition, this year’s two winners of the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for contributions to teaching and campus life were both alumni:

Frank Fitch, MD’53, SM’57, PhD’60, the Albert D. Lasker Professor Emeritus in Pathology and the Ben May Institute Larry Sjaastad, AB’57, AM’58, PhD’61, Professor Emeritus in Economics and the College