Fermi Award Winners: Q&A

Jump to: Mildred S. Dresselhaus | Burton Richter

Dr. Mildred S. Dresselhaus

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Fermi Award winner Mildred S. Dresselhaus with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

After winning the Enrico Fermi Award, Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions from the Office of Science on how she got interested in science, who inspired her and what advice she has for women who hope to follow her success.

Q. How did you get interested in science?

A. I personally got interested in science through music. As a child growing up in a low-income neighborhood in New York City I went to local schools that were both poor in educational content and dangerous because of widespread violence in the classroom, school yard, and streets through which I had to walk to school. However, I had a music scholarship in Greenwich Village which was a safe place and there I met other children and parents who taught me that education was the way out of the squalid neighborhood conditions around me. I learned from them the existence of special public high schools that were available through entrance examinations. I therefore did self study to master the material that was on these exams. I found the math and science topics especially exciting. Self study and getting jobs to teach others turned out to be a great strategy for my own education and for providing needed living expenses as I grew up. I got more and more interested in math and science the more I learned.

Q. Was there any particular person or any memorable moment that led you into your career?

A. I drifted into science slowly and not intentionally. I started college to be an elementary school teacher and attended Hunter College with this intention. Because Hunter College had many required courses for everyone, I could make progress with any major by taking the required courses as well as courses that interested me in my early years. Since I had a very good high school background from my attendance at Hunter College High School, I could easily take an overload of courses. I chose my overload courses to be in math and science.

In my second year, I met Rosalyn Yalow, who taught me modern physics and she convinced me to focus more on the math and science and less on elementary school education. She was a forceful advisor and remained in the background as a mentor for many years, giving me a helpful hand at every turn. She was an amazing person who in her own right opened the field of biophysics and became a world figure in science. She was the one who was most influential in leading me to attend graduate school and to go to the best schools and to study with the best scholars. She was the one who told me that I could make it even though I was a woman, and she did warn me that the road ahead for women in science might be more difficult, but not to be deterred.

Q. Did you have anyone who inspired you along the way, say a mentor or a model?

A. Yes, many people inspired me in my career. That was easy because I had low aspirations. When I was in grade school I was told that, because I was a girl and also because I had no money, there were three possible careers for me: school teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. The choice of school teaching from these three was easy. Also the career path in New York City was clear because there were very cheap public colleges available for such studies. In this way I wound up at Hunter College with the intention of becoming an elementary school teacher.

Because I happened to have had the good fortune to attend Hunter College High School, the only special public high school in New York City for girls at that time, I was very well prepared for Hunter College and could take a big overload of courses enabling me to also major in math and science. In this way I met Rosalyn Yalow in my second year when I took a course in modern physics from her, and she was teaching at Hunter College because she could not find a research job. Employment for women physicists was difficult at that time.

All of this eventually led to my attending the University of Chicago where I met Enrico Fermi, who taught me how to do physics and how to think about physics. My husband Gene Dresselhaus, whom I met at the University of Chicago, was very important in convincing me that I could do physics and be successful at it. Most people benefit from multiple mentors and role models, learning different things from each of them.

Q. Did you have any failures, or at least unsuccessful experiments along the way? What did you do – what kept you moving?

A. In doing science, some projects are more successful than others. In fact, it is often difficult to assess how successful a project will be until years later. In the two areas I am best known for nowadays I had little idea that anyone would care about the early work on these topics that now is often cited. In 1960 when I started working on carbon science there was almost nobody working in this field and almost nobody read these early papers on carbon science or referenced them until many years later. The same was true of nano thermoelectricity, but in this case it took fewer years before the work got any recognition. Starting a new field is likely to be a lonely venture for a while, and the field may go nowhere or it may take off, often after a gestation period. To keep your career going, it is often useful to also be working on topics that other people can recognize as good work, even if many years later it is clear that these mainstream works are not the best works of your total output.

Q. Could you name a myth/misconception that nonscientists have about the scientific effort?

A. One myth I have often heard from nonscientists is that science is outside their comfort zone and they can neither understand what scientists do, nor what scientists think about. Actually I believe that there are many people out there who could have become successful and happy scientists but didn't try because they were afraid to try or discouraged by mentors who said science was too hard for them. So if you have the interest and are not sure you can do it, why don't you try it out and see whether or not you can actually do something interesting in science before giving up. Since science permeates so much of everyday life nowadays, knowing more science is more likely to be generally beneficial than not.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who is hoping to follow your footsteps, to become a successful scientist?

A. The advice I would give to someone hoping to follow my footsteps and to have a rewarding career in science is first to determine that you really like doing science and that you have some aptitude for it. Careers in science can take many forms and can be at many levels. The important thing is to really want to do it and be willing to put in the effort to do it at an acceptable level, and as I said above there are many acceptable levels. The second thing would be to get appropriate training in some aspect or a combination of aspects of science. A third thing would be to find some mentors or advisors to help you along the way with mentoring and to write letters of recommendation as needed.

Q. You have been a mentor and inspiration to women in science. What is your best advice for girls who might want to become scientists?

A. Regarding women in science, you ask: What is my best advice to girls wanting to become scientists? I would say that being a scientist is a great career and one that I would strongly recommend to girls with a love for the work and those having enough ability to be able to enjoy doing it seriously. The career is not much like class work but is very much about research and hands-on activities. Some youngsters and parents are discouraged by the salaries of scientists, which are definitely less than in business and law; however, salaries are good enough to live comfortably. My advice is to have good training and to find encouraging mentors who are somewhat further along in their careers than you are and are both doing interesting science and having a satisfying personal life while doing science.

Q. You've dedicated your life to benefiting humankind through energy science and technology. What is your proudest accomplishment?

A. Regarding service to society, it has firstly been through my work in the energy and technology fields, and in these areas my proudest accomplishment has been the many people who thank me for helping them understand aspects of science and helping them get established in satisfying careers through mentoring. Since I had a totally free education all along, I feel strongly indebted to others who helped me along the way, and therefore I am a natural person to have a personal interest in service to society. Another related area of service to society is in getting more women interested in science.

Q. Enrico Fermi's achievements opened new scientific and technological realms. Can we still do this today?

A. It is true that Enrico Fermi opened many new scientific and technological areas. He lived at a time when science was moving forward very rapidly and expanding rapidly. There are differences between then and now because science has advanced so much in this past century, so that it is not possible to work at the cutting edge of so many fields of science as he did. However, it is still possible to make significant contributions at the cutting edge of more than one subfield of science. I see young people doing the most exciting and highly original research nowadays, and this is not different from his generation.

Q. Why should the U.S. invest in science?

A. Why should the U.S. invest in science? Because science has high potential for improving the standard of living by creating new and better ways of doing things that make many people happier and healthier as well as enjoying life more fully. Advancing science and technology is good for job creation and for making much more interesting and rewarding life experiences for people. It is also important for supporting national defense work when such work is needed. Science and technology are vital parts of what an educated person should know, and investment in good education has been shown time and again to be our best investment in the future.

Dr. Burton Richter

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Fermi Award winner Burton Richter with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

After winning the Enrico Fermi Award, Dr. Burton Richter was also kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions from the Office of Science, including how got started in science, who inspired him and what he considers his proudest accomplishment.

Q: How did you get started in science—was there any particular person or any memorable moment that led you into your career?

A: It was a combination of things that got me started. One that sticks in my mind was a visit to the Haydn Planetarium in New York when I was about 10 years old. The most memorable views were of our Milky Way galaxy. It was also 1941 and I was living on Long Island. But 1941 was the time of World War II and the city was blacked out. I could see the stars in a way that no city kid can today. I framed a kid's question early—how does the universe work. That eventually got me to physics and within physics to elementary particle physics.

I started at Far Rockaway High School (3 Nobel Laureates; Richard Feynman, Barry Blumberg and me) and spent my junior and senior years at The Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, and from there to MIT.

Q: Did you have anyone who inspired you along the way, say a mentor or a model?

A: Before getting to MIT my inspiration was more from science fiction than from scientists. I did not know any scientists, and in World War II reporting on science was blocked so as not to give information to the enemy. After getting to MIT in 1948 where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies, there were four members of the faculty who were particularly important to me.

I started in Francis Bitter's Magnet Laboratory in the summer of 1950 between my sophomore and junior years. He put my name (perhaps undeservedly) on my first paper—on optical pumping. My bachelor's thesis was on the quadratic Zeeman effect in hydrogen, something that could only be done then in his lab with its unique 100 kilogauss magnet.

When I started grad school I was not certain if I wanted to be a theorist or an experimenter. Francis Friedman was the MIT theorist with whom I tried my wings as a theorist. While I did my practice problems with little difficulty, the experience helped me decide the plumbing of experiment was more interesting than the plumbing of theory.

David Frisch taught the nuclear physics course when I took it as an undergraduate. He was very approachable and when I began to feel that the area I was working in with Bitter as a grad student was not for me, I turned to Frisch for advice. He provided more than advice, setting up a visit of three months at the Brookhaven National Lab to my wings in particle physics.

The last from the MIT period was Lou Osborne with whom I did my thesis. I learned a lot about experiment, electronics, and accelerators with him. He also strongly encouraged me to keep my dual interests in theory and experiment. The accelerator part was unusual in that the graduate students maintained the MIT synchrotron. I was responsible for the magnet system, while others had the controls, the accelerating system and the main power system.

Thanks to those four, when I left MIT for Stanford with my new Ph.D. I had a plan for an experiment, had checked the theory to see how far I could go with it, was something of an electronics expert, and knew more about accelerators than most.

I also have to thank DuPont and the NSF (National Science Foundation). Between them I had fellowships that supported me throughout graduate school. Since the stipend came to me, I could move between subfield of physics with ease.

At Stanford my most important mentor was W.K.H. Panofsky or Pief as everyone called him. I can simply say he taught me how to be a lab director. Here are some of the things a lab director needs to think about; some I learned from Pief and some I had to discover on my own.

  • You can't remain on the frontier by doing the same thing all the time. What will make you a world leader 15 years from now?
  • The easiest way to get something done is to convince other senior people at your lab that they thought of it first.
  • If things go well at your lab, you get the credit.
  • It is always a good thing to tell DOE what you have done after you have done it, but sometimes it is a bad idea to tell them before.
  • In Washington, there is an exception to every rule, and "no" means "maybe."

Q: Did you have any failures, or at least unsuccessful experiments along the way? What did you do—what kept you moving?

A: My first failure taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. When I was a pot-doc an important issue was the rare decay of the pi meson into an electron and a neutrino. It was expected to be about one part in 10,000, but an experiment had been done at the U. of Chicago cyclotron that said it was less than one part in a million. Another post-doc, Hobey Destaebler, and I devised an experiment that though not highly precise was sensitive to a rate of a part in 100 million. We started taking data and working on reducing background. We worked on background reduction for weeks, and one day we heard that we had been scooped by an experiment at CERN which showed that the Chicago result was wrong and the correct result was in agreement with theory. I walked over to the electronics and flipped the switch from delayed coincidence (background) to prompt (signal) and there it was, far larger than the initial background. We never published a paper because our systematic error was larger than the statistical error of the CERN result. The lesson—look for the signal first; you never know what is really there.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is hoping to follow your footsteps, to become a successful scientist?

A: Know enough to understand what is important in your field. Understand the state of theory and what the main issues are. If you do not you are nothing but a technician for the theorists. You need drive, leadership ability, a certain degree of self-confidence.

Q: You've dedicated your life to benefiting humankind through energy science and technology. What is your proudest accomplishment?

A: Besides being married for more than 50 years, raising good kids, and having two young granddaughter who are turning into interesting personalities, I go back to the answer to question 1. I don't understand yet how the universe works, but I contributed a lot to understanding it better today that when I started in science.

Q: Enrico Fermi's achievements opened new scientific and technological realms. Can we still do this today?

A: We do it all the time. Technology enables science and science enables technology. That back and forth has revolutionized our views of all areas of science and given us technological tools that were conceivable 50 years ago only in the science fiction I liked to read as a kid.

Q: Why should the U.S. invest in science?

A: We can be either a leader or a follower in innovation and innovation gives the opportunity for economic advancement. We have been the leader, but are busy throwing away our advantage by being unable to hold a steady course in support of science and engineering. Do we want to be a follower?