Chevaliers de Sangreal

Many a time we are simply oblivious to what lies in our surroundings. Blinkered by the vagaries of every day life, we attach ourselves to sub-optimal thoughts. Fettered by our desire for instant gratification, our habits follow a dotted path mired an endless circle of need and more need. Our poverty of attention, our inability to focus, and our brazen unwillingness to pause makes us less human. They make us less gratified and definitely far less effective than we would like to admit. What is it like to constantly miss the forest for a tree, to ignore the variables directly under our control and to try and alter those that aren’t? What is it like to be lost in a maze that we can’t seem to pull ourselves out of – to be so busy and challenged for time that we perilously live on the edge and convince ourselves that this is good for us? Seneca once said what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. A mathematician will readily provide a corollary that when we try and be too self-centered, it is worse than being in a random graph walk. It is in fact, like I discovered last week, a pitiable state to be in. It took an astonishing human being to pull me back from this dreary stupor.

My grandmother always used to say that there are certain people that are so intrinsically noble that their faces radiate with a kind of glow that will light even a broken heart wallowing in darkness. I suppose we’ve all met such people and felt their innate power to usher a flurry of positivity into us. Last week, I found myself to be fortunate enough to meet Mildred Dresselhaus in person. I first saw her speak at MIT’s 150 anniversary and felt a strange sense of connection rather instantly. Her diction was clear, and her talk on carbon nanotubes captivating. She was introduced as one of the most important researchers MIT’s ever had, but her demeanor was down-to-earth. No sooner had she started to answer some questions from an awestruck audience than I realize the reasons she was so widely cherished by any who had crossed her path. I read about her work that night, and found her writing to be as lucid and packed with power as her diction in speech. As I went to bed that night I was reminded of how much really miss my grandmother.

Mildred Dresselhaus was born in Brooklyn, New York during the Great Depression. She attended Hunter City High School and later Hunter City College in New York. Her ambition in life as she told me last week, was to become a high school teacher. It was at Hunter City College that she met a physicist Rosalyn Yalow, sparking an interest in science that would take her to postgraduate studies at Harvard and the University of Cambridge. She obtained a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and then went spent two years at Cornell as a postdoctoral researcher. She’s said before that finding a job was difficult, that legacy appointments were rife at places like Harvard. Her husband Gene (who’s a noted theorist) and her were able to find a position at MIT, because MIT was one of the few places that still accepted merit-based appointments. She joined the faculty of Electrical Engineering in 1967 and received tenure the next year. She then went on to become a Professor of Physics in 1983 and was elected as Institute Professor of MIT in 1985, the highest academic position bestowed to a faculty member by the institute. When she joined MIT’s faculty, only 4% of students were women, which makes her a trailblazer.

She is also a trailblazer of many other kinds. Her work on the properties of carbon nanotubes all but created a field of nanotechnology, and is widely regarded as one of the leading founders of the field. Mildred also has four children and is a grandmom to many. I asked her how she managed to discover a defining field like nanotechnology while still widely being admired as a proud mother of four. ‘You have to put things in context’, she told me ‘I had many people to help me. Our nanny was the wife of a very brilliant physics student at Harvard, and she helped me in a big way’. She went on on tell me more about her experiences traversing the academic landscape a student and as an academic. We talked briefly about my own research, and I had to tell her what the distinct advantage the hard sciences have over the soft ones. The conversation was one I did not want to end.

As I got ready to leave, I asked her why she was consistently beloved by all her students. I mentioned to her that my own advisor was once her student, and that I found it oddly unusual that she plays the violin every time a student of hers graduates. “My students don’t work for me, but I work for them. I see things differently”, she told me as she showed me pictures of her standing next to each of the last four Presidents of the United States in the oval office. One photograph with each living President except Jimmy Carter. I looked at her in wonderment and paused to collect my thoughts – here was a woman who was so incredibly accomplished, a trailblazer to any who crossed her path, but still an angel to those that worked with  her. How can someone move humanity forward through her groundbreaking research and yet retain such a sense of balance, of proportion and kindnes?

As I stood there in front of her preparing to leave her office, I was reminded so forcefully of my grandmother. I told her so, as I paused to feel the overwhelming sense of nostalgia that washed over me at that moment. She looked at me and considered me for a moment and thanked me and I realized that I was not the only person in the room who felt blinded by misty, tear filled eyes. It was an extraordinary experience, one with a great number of lessons in life.

As we traverse the vicissitudes and opportunities in our lives, we are reminded ever so often that there are good and great forces at work in the world, and we need only to open our eyes and notice them. We are shaped and bound by those who mold us, and we will never be we are without them. It’s hard for me to contemplate even for a teensy moment what I would have been but for my parents – my mother who never gave up on me, who persisted and made me the person I am today. My teachers throughout high school and my college. And most of all, my grandparents. It is important to celebrate the people that alter and define our lives for the better and we can begin by noticing them when they are around us. Few things matter if anything else, and as it should be reminded that we are as strong or weak as our capacity to celebrate them in tangible ways.

There is a belief that when a person leaves earthly life, they morph into a star within the confines of the grand universe, to become a heavenly bodies in a constellation of other stars where they shine in interstellar space. In the high likelihood that my grandmom is looking over me as I gaze outside at the night sky, I want to say this: I miss you a lot, and wish I could warp forward by bending time to meet you again. But perhaps the alternative is to celebrate and notice the good forces that nourish and take care of us. A celebration of our Chevalier de Sangreal.

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