I had heard of her long before we met personally. She is well known among the scientific community all over the world, as she was the first woman to become Institute Professor and professor emerita of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. Among many other firsts. She was so popular that every conference in the field wanted to have her as a speaker. It was in one of those that I met her for the first time. It was the year 2008 and she couldn't care less about another young researcher that seemed fascinated just to be in her presence. I'm not going to lie, I didn't like her then. Our paths crossed again a few other times and I started seeing what her life was like. She loved her work more than anything, many times refusing to rest to just keep working. She met hundreds of people in each conference and everybody wanted to publish articles, chapters or entire books with her. Her name in the list of authors meant really a lot. She was a star and she loved it. But I also saw the other side. Or rather I feared there was another side, in which people, some people, were pursuing more their own interests than honoured by having her help and kindness. And she was kind.
Three years ago me and Johan visited her group at MIT for a couple of weeks. It was December and the weather was awful. We were staying in some old apartment that started flooding in the middle of a rain storm. We were supposed to leave to give a presentation to her and her group. There and then we had to chose between leaving and letting the apartment flood or staying to squeeze the towels and change the bucket that were holding the water drops. We chose to stay missing our presentation (and a 20 minute walk under the rain and wind). She was so sorry that to make up for it she proposed us a collaboration on a book chapter she wanted to do. We missed the presentation and SHE was sorry. That was the turning point.
After that I also started to see her off-work side, hard to spot since she was always working. She told me about her family and showed me pictures of her grandchildren, like any other 80 year old. She fell asleep sometimes during the talks in conferences. She could get tired. She was human after all!
The last time we met was in another conference, in 2015. She was 84. Her mind had started to show signs of weakness and her speech during the opening ceremony was confused. Suddenly, all the attention she usually had in conferences vanished and I saw her alone on a few occasions, when before she wouldn't be let alone for a single second. One of the evenings she was looking for someone and asked me for help. She was supposed to meet a German guy, whose name she couldn't spell and who was not attending the conference. We went into her room (the conference was at a hotel), and tried to find clues about his contact details. She had work papers all over, on the bed, the desk, the floor. Her room showed well who she was and it was as I had imagined. We finally managed to get hold of the person, who said he was stuck in traffic. We spent a couple of hours together, waiting and talking about life, science and other things. I made jokes at the situation saying we would form a great team of detectives. She laughed. It was lovely. That's how I want to remember her: laughing and talking with a warm smile on her face. Wearing her red coat.
She passed away a week ago. I bet she worked until the very last day. She was the Queen of the nanocarbon. She was Professor Mildred Dresselhaus. But for all of us, she was Millie.
PS. A few weeks ago was released an ad featuring Millie, who supported women in science. Don't miss it, it's brilliant! Watch below.