Changing science in a new presidency

PROFESSOR MILDRED DRESSELHAUS POSES for a photo alongside President Shirley Ann Jackson at a banquet in the professor’s honor.

This past weekend, Rensselaer hosted a meeting of the New York State section of the American Physical Society. A banquet for the event was held on Friday, November 11 in Sage Dining Hall, and featured the esteemed Professor Mildred Dresselhaus for an “after dinner” talk. Dresselhaus grew up in a poor family in New York City during the Great Depression. She received a scholarship from Eleanor Roosevelt to attend Hunter College, and later received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

In view of the recent election, Dresselhaus said that funding would likely be decreased significantly, despite the fact that, “The impact of science on the world is increasingly important.” Though she cannot predict careers to come, she says that we must ensure the quality and accessibility of education for future generations. She also brought up six other points of interest for the future. First, she mentioned the study of complex phenomena. Second, she thought the study of physical properties between living and non-living systems would be interesting. Third, she expressed interest in equilibrium situations. Many situations in the universe that are out of equilibrium come back to the same state and we do not necessarily understand how that happens. Fourth, computers have gotten smaller and smaller in the last few decades while increasing functionality. She said, “Science advances to all kinds of things a decade ago we thought impossible.” She raised the question of how the implementation of tech will happen. Fifth, she said the end of Moore’s law is the single molecule—we have reached that, and people are working on devices. What happens after? Sixth, when she started in the carbon field, they were figuring out how to emulate paper. What has happened since is not concluded. They are getting smaller and smaller, but have not finished.

After speaking, Dresselhaus took questions from the audience. In response to a question about the change in interest in physics in America, she explained what happened in Bell Labs and why she thought it happened: “The field was moving forward, and they were committed to their product line. Their research was somewhat geared to their product line… Science moves forward. If you’re not there, you’re out… Companies have to be very nimble.” She believes that it was a combination of their research focus and the board making decisions on what they can work on that lead to what happened—not only in the U.S, but all over the world for similar reasons.

In response to Jackson’s question about the future of transition metal dichalcogenides, Dresselhaus said that one of the attractions of transition metal is the variety of properties possible; if you know one, learning another is not so difficult. The company has to change realignment, but it is not that much more difficult. However, it is still a finite lifetime, so the company has to have a research lab and think about the next 10 years. The economic support setup is difficult to achieve, but less so for professors. “I always leave a little bit of money around for the crazy ideas. I think students should have some free time to work on the crazy ideas that interest them.”

One audience member asked what we might do to try to ensure access to education, considering the defunding of state universities. Dresselhaus explained that alumni are very important, and pointed out that Massachusetts Institute of Technology is supported by its alumni fund more than anything else.

When asked about the best decade in her lifetime of science in terms of barriers broken, Dresselhaus said 1960; it was declared a year of science, a science initiative was started, and it became much easier to get a job as a woman. Dresselhaus herself became the first female tenured professor at MIT. The country went from a war economy to building new industries, stemming from science. She ended by saying that Moore’s law is ending, and that we need new ideas and interdisciplinary connections.

When asked how to address the lack of funding toward the “reproducibility” of studies, Dresselhaus stated that the US has less money compared to rest of most of world, and as a result, “We have to learn how to do more with less. As we look forward to the next administration, we have to look more to that concern.”

Another audience member asked about the best way for scientists to have an impact on public policy. Dresselhaus explained that “At all levels, there are opportunities to get involved in public service… The local communities start with the public schools in the neighborhood… Talk to parents about how important it is to support education locally.” It is imperative that our children be educated competitively with the rest of the world. Dresselhaus stated that “If you’re a permanent resident, you have a stake in the welfare of the country,” and your time is the most valuable thing you can offer—there is no price tag on that. More popular support at that level will lead to more government funding; several members of the audience reiterated that APS has funds to give out—usually two research grants per year—and exactly one of those focuses is schools.

When asked if she had to prove herself, in a male-dominated field, beyond what men would have to do, Dresselhaus said, “Women faculty, women students do the same science as the men. Remember that. That is my motto.” History Shows ample data that, per capita, women contribute at least as much as men do. For a woman to make it and stay there, with distractions, requires dedication. “I have four children, a family, I have a lot of other responsibilities other than my job,” and she still made sure nobody would be critical that she did not do enough high quality work. As the first female tenured faculty member at MIT, she felt that it was not only her right to speak up, but an obligation to future generations, whenever anything was not equal.

Dresselhaus has worked for the Clinton administration and has been awarded all possible awards in her field, with the sole exception of a Nobel Prize. She has been a role model for many scientists, especially women and minorities. To learn more about her accomplishments, visit