womeninphysics

The first annual Women in Physics lecture, featuring MIT Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, was held at Penn on Wednesday night.

Credit: Vanessa Weir

Mildred Dresselhaus, grandmother of College junior Elizabeth Dresselhaus, isn’t your average grandmother.

Dubbed the “Queen of Carbon Science,” Dresselhaus is one of the most lauded female physicists in the world. Women in Physics, a group on campus which aims to encourage more women to pursue careers in physics, brought Dresselhaus to Penn to give a talk on her over 50 year career.

Professor Dresselhaus, the first female institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has received awards from the American Chemical Society and L’Oreal-UNESCO for encouraging women into careers in science. Her other honors include the National Medal of Science in 1990 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Elizabeth Dresselhaus, a co-founder of the Women in Physics group, organized the event. WiP was formed this spring to replace the now-defunct Women Interested in the Study of Physics, and has held several events over the past year with female Penn faculty in the physics department.

A major goal of the group’s more casual events was to bring female Penn physics students closer to potential mentors, Dresselhaus said. “The professors, who are mostly male, are more likely to take on a male student than a female student. We’re trying to flip the divide by encouraging our female undergraduates to seek out female mentors.”

While women have made inroads in some areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, female representation in physics still lags behind. According to the American Physical Society, as of 2015, about 20 percent of bachelors degrees earned in physics are earned by women. Dresselhaus cited her grandmother’s own mentor, Nobel laureate Rosalyn Yalow, as a major influence in pushing her forward in her career.

Professor Dresselhaus provided the audience with a history of her life and research, describing the effect that advances in materials technology and information science had on her own career. While part of the speech was highly technical, describing band gaps and electromagnetic spectra, most of it was more broadly accessible. She encouraged the researchers in the audience to revive the old practice of reserving one day of the week to work on personal interests and projects: “That’s where the world changing discoveries were made,” she said.

Trisha Ramadoss, an Engineering and College sophomore, said that she came to the talk hoping to hear about Professor Dresselhaus’s life and how she got into science, as well as advice on pursuing a research career. “I feel like my expectations were met,” she said.

Bryan Fichera, a College junior studying physics, was also hoping to hear about the process of a life in research. “It was interesting hearing about her life story, her career, the various struggles she encountered and how she overcame them,” he said.

Fichera was one of many men in the audience, a fact which Professor Dresselhaus said “delighted” her. “This is a societal issue,” she said, “having enough people with talent and dedication to be able to contribute to the next generation of science and technology.”

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