Women are not represented among scientists and engineers in proportion to their population. "No objective testing has revealed such substantial differences in talent as to account for this discrepancy." Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Prize Address, 1977.
Until the 1960s women were under a number of restrictions, one of which was that they were not permitted to enroll in Ivy League colleges, the rationale being that women were less intellectually capable than men. At best, women were capable of memorization but nto steady and creative intellectual work: "women take truth as they find it, while men want to create truth." (Nearing et al., 1912, p. 23)
Evidence that undermined that attitude is presented by the career of Mildred Dresselhaus (born Mildred Spiewak) who passed away February 22, 2017.
Born into a poor family of Jewish immigrants, young MIdred Spiewak's early educational experiences were not promising: "My early years were spent in a dangerous, multiracial, low-income neighborhood," she wrote in a biographical sketch. "My early elementary school memories up to ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics." When she heard from a friend about Hunter High School, a highly selective public school in Manhattan that admitted only girls who had very high scores on the entrance exam, "she wrote away for old entry exams, studied them and then aced the test." (Angier, 2017) & (Bryan, 2017)
Mildred graduated from Hunter High School and went on to complete her bachelor's degree at New York's Hunter College, followed by a Master's degree at Radcliffe (the Harvard "female" college at the time). During her college career she had planned to be a high school teacher until Rosalyn Yalow, her teacher in an elementary physics class, recognized that Mildred was an exceptional science student. Yalow's mentorship led Mildred to the Ph.D. graduate program in physics at the University of Chicago where her research advisor was Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize laureate. It was at the University of Chicago where in 1941 he and his colleagues built the world's first nuclear reactor (Chicago Pile-1) under the bleachers at the Stagg field.
Fermi's home at 5537 S. Woodlawn Ave. and Mildred's graduate rooming house were located in the same Chicago neighborhood and the two would walk to work each day talking science. "The conversations were thrilling," she recalled, "and they kept her going through a grueling graduate program from which 75 percent of students dropped out." (Angier, 2017)
She completed her degree in 1958 and then spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell and from there she went to M.I.T. in 1967. In 1968 she became the first woman to be a tenured professor at M.I.T. (Bryan, 2017)
Women were very rare in graduate programs. Princeton University didn't even admit women to certain Ph.D. programs at all.
When Rosalyn Yalow, Mildren's mentor, went to the University of Illinois in early 1941, she had been the only woman among her department's 400 members and was the first woman in the department since 1917. Mildred's first work was in M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory where she was one of the two women in the facility out of a total membership of 1000!
Her personal experience with the isolation felt by women in STEM fields led to her making time to mentor women to enter STEM programs and careers. She won the National Medal of Science in 1990, not only for her research on the electronic properties of carbon but also for her efforts to expand opportunities for women in science and engineering. According to the award: "Mildred Dresselhaur has truly earned her title--"Queen of Carbon...her research of carbon as a superconductor paved the way for advances in the field of nanotechnology. In addition to her work inside the lab, Dresselhaus also uses her resources to advocate for women in scientific fields like physics and engineering. She draws on her own experience getting ahead in a male-dominated field." (National Medal of Science, 1990)
Her cutting edge research ensured that she wouldn't be the last woman tenured at M.I.T.
In her research into the basic structure of nanotubes, Dr. Dresselhaus used the Raman Effect to develop an understanding of the atomic structure of nanotubes.
The Raman Effect was discovered by Sir C.V. (Chandrasekhara Venkata) Raman in 1928. It is based on the fact that light is scattered by molecules it encounters. Beginning in 1997, Dr. Dresselhaus used the Raman Effect to work out the atomic structure of nanotubes, and identifying several different ways in which the carbon atoms were configured creating different kinds of nanotubes, each with unique properties: they could be either metallic or semiconducting depending on the diameter and organization of the orientation of the carbon hexagons. In addition, her team discovered that the nanotubes were mechanically stronger than steel. You can view a presentation she made in 2005, Raman Scattering in Carbon Nanotubes here.
Over the years, Dr. Dresselhaus wrote or collaborated on eight books on carbon as well as 1700 peer-reviewed research publications."
Note: Mildred’s mentor Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, Nobel Prize in Medical Physics in 1977, was the second American woman to win a Nobel Prize. The first was Gerty Cori who was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1947 for her discovery of the mechanism by which glycogen is broken down in muscle tissue into lactic acid and then resynthesized in the body as an energy source. Dr. Cori also had problems getting university positions because of her sex.
In her Nobel Prize speech, Dr. Yalow noted: Women are not represented among scientists and engineers in proportion to their population. “No objective testing has revealed such substantial differences in talent as to account for this discrepancy. The failure of women to have reached positions of leadership has been due in large part to social and professional discrimination. In the past, few women have tried and even fewer have succeeded. We still live in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman belongs and wants to belong exclusively in the home; that a woman should not aspire to achieve more than her male counterparts and particularly not more than her husband.”
Angier, N. (2017c). Mildred Dresselhaus, the Queen of Carbon, Dies at 86. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/science/mildred-dresselhaus-dead-queen-of-carbon.html
Bryan, M. (2017c). Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, 86, much-honored MIT physicist, mentor to female scientists. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/02/23/mildred-dresselhaus-mit-physicist-and-presidential-medal-freedom-recipient-dies/FdXiYtUFk6wpgix4n2nz1L/story.html
Nearling, Scott and Nellie M.S. (1912). Woman and Social Progress: A Discussion of the Biologic, Domestic, Industrial, and Social Possibilities of American Women. New York: Macmillan Company. Retrieved from https://ia600201.us.archive.org/7/items/womanandsocialp03neargoog/womanandsocialp03neargoog.pdf
Mildred Dresselhaus, National Medal of Science in Engineering 1990.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.