In June, Professor Mildred Dresselhaus will formally receive the 2015 IEEE Medal of Honor for her leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering. She is the first woman to receive the organisation’s highest honor since its inception in 1917.

Dresselhaus is famous for her work in carbon-based materials including buckminsterfullerenes (buckyballs), nanotubes and graphene. In the energy sector, carbon-based materials are frequently discussed in terms of their ability to increase energy storage capacities in battery technologies and supercapacitors. According to the IEEE, “the era of carbon electronics can be traced back to [Dresselhaus's] tireless research efforts.”

Dresselhaus is the daughter of destitute Eastern European immigrants and a product of Great Depression and World War II-era New York City schools and their melting-pot culture where her only apparent career option was that of a schoolteacher (and “even that was a bit of a stretch, given the time and place”). But her love of music would help her discover a passion for mathematics and physics that would eventually lead her to a full Professorship at MIT.

Along this path, she would be influenced by fellow scientists including Rosalyn Yalow, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman. In particular, Fermi has a deep influence on the scientist that Dresselhaus would become.

[Enrico Fermi] developed in me the mind-set that we should be interested in everything…because we never know where the next big breakthrough in science will occur.” ~Mildred Dresselhaus

Throughout her career, which has spanned more than half a century, Dresselhaus has served as the Director of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Treasurer of the US National Academy of Sciences, President of the American Physical Society and Chair of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics. She has received numerous awards, including the US National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award, the Kavli Prize, and the C3E Lifetime Achievement Award and holds 28 honorary doctorates worldwide. She also served as a caring and thoughtful mentor– not to mention becoming a mother of four and a grandmother of five.

In November, Dresselhaus received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government’s highest civilian honor. In the presentation ceremony, President Obama stated that “her influence is all around us, in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives.”

Photo Credit: MIT and NSF (Georgia Litwack)