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Letter to the MIT community regarding the death of Mildred Dresselhaus

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The following email was sent today to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

Yesterday, we lost a giant – an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being.

Millie Dresselhaus began life as the child of poor Polish immigrants in the Bronx; by the end, she was Institute Professor Emerita, the highest distinction awarded by the MIT faculty. A physicist, materials scientist and electrical engineer, she was known as the "Queen of Carbon" because her work paved the way for much of today's carbon-based nanotechnology.

You can read more about her remarkable life here.

Among her many "firsts," in 1968, Millie became the first woman at MIT to attain the rank of full, tenured professor. She was the first solo recipient of a Kavli Prize and the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering.

Millie was also, to my great good fortune, the first to reveal to me the wonderful spirit of MIT. In fact, her down-to-earth demeanor was a major reason I decided to join this community. When I arrived as a junior faculty member, I was assigned to the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, so I got to know Millie well right away; she was the center's director, and when I wrote my first proposal to the NSF, to my complete surprise, she offered to read it. It came back the next day, full of her thoughtful red penciling, showing me how I could make it better. With that gesture, she taught me my first great lesson in how we aspire to help each other at MIT.

Like dozens of young faculty and hundreds of MIT students over the years, I was lucky to count Millie as my mentor. On this sad day, it is a great comfort to reflect on her example: someone who loved the beauty of scientific discovery and whose bold, rigorous, elegant research is now enabling new solutions to real-world problems. Someone who, personally and professionally, always took the time to do the right thing. Someone devoted to her family, who somehow made the rest of us feel like family, too.

In 2014, Millie won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. I believe she earned this distinction because the way that she led her life in science represented citizenship in the highest sense. May we all strive to do justice to her example.

Our hearts go out to Millie's family in the face of this great loss, and we offer them our gratitude for sharing her with us for so long.

As plans emerge for a memorial service, we will post the details via MIT News.

In sympathy and wonder,

L. Rafael Reif

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