A woman of substance

At last Saturday's alumni convocation, Alumni Medal-winner Mildred Dresselhaus, PhD'58, noted that it was 50 years ago this month that she defended her physics thesis at Chicago. Now she was back—after a career at MIT conducting groundbreaking research in condensed-matter physics, encouraging more women to enter science and engineering, and directing the federal Office of Science under President Bill Clinton—to receive the University of Chicago Alumni Association's highest honor.

Speaking on "my University of Chicago roots," she told the audience gathered in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel—including other award winners and Alumni Weekend visitors—that her education had been broad. Physics professor Enrico Fermi believed graduate students "should learn the fundamentals of all subfields of physics," she said, "so when they decided somewhere during their graduate studies to pursue one type or another of physics, they would be able to do that." That breadth came in handy as she moved to new research topics, directed a lab "where I had responsibilities for many different areas," served on company boards where "I was the only scientist," and in the Clinton Administration was "able to ask people in other fields specific questions."

Another valuable lesson she learned at Chicago: "get up early in the morning and get my work done before everybody else arrived." Otherwise you spend your day in meetings or on things other than your own work. "Even when I was working in the government I used to arrive before any of the staff so I would have everything ready when they arrived."

Hard work was also a theme later in the ceremony, as professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics Peter Vandervoort, AB'54, SB'55, SM'56, PhD'60, shared some personal anecdotes about the medalist. As his teaching assistant, Dresselhaus "scolded me for neglecting to work as many physics problems as she knew I should," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. As President Robert J. Zimmer placed the medal over Dresselhaus's head, the chapel audience applauded.


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Photos (left to right): Dresselhaus tells the group what she learned at the University; the Rockefeller crowd listens to her speak; President Zimmer awards her the Alumni Medal.

Photos by Dan Dry.

June 13, 2008