No quit for the "Queen of Carbon"

President Obama gave thanks this week to 18 extraordinary people, presenting them with the Medal of Freedom.

"We set aside this event to celebrate people who have made America stronger, and wiser, and more humane, and more beautiful," said President Obama.

Among those receiving the nation's highest civilian honor was a woman who, the president said, had changed the world.

In a cluttered office, behind reams of paper and stacks of books, sits Mildred Dresselhaus. The 84-year-old, one of the greatest minds in the field of physics, has worked at MIT for more than 50 years, and still goes there every day of the week.

"I've been doing this for a very long time, because I just enjoy it," said Dresselhaus. "I have fun."

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Mildred Dresselhaus
CBS News

Her students know her as "Millie," but her peers call her the "Queen of Carbon."

"The main thread of my work is structure property relations and materials," Dresselhaus explained. "If you have certain atoms, why do they attract each other, why do they make compounds, why do they do what they do?"

Dresselhaus pioneered research in the electrical properties of carbon. She studied graphite, the material found in pencils.

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Mildred Dresselhaus
MIT

She also blazed her own path in a male-dominated field. When she pursued her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, her thesis adviser wasn't particularly interested.

"He was very happy to see me get lost," said Dresselhaus. "What he said was that there wasn't much place for women in physics, you see, there aren't any."

That adviser has since apologized.

Today, Dresselhaus and her work continue to inspire women in the sciences, even her own granddaughter -- a graduate student at MIT.

Dresselhaus has more awards lying around than she can count, including the $1 million dollar Kavli Prize in Nanoscience. She's received so many awards from the White House that she has a designated blazer to wear for the ceremonies. Dresselhaus says it helps the President remember who she is -- not that he's likely to forget the MIT legend.

She was asked at what point she would stop coming in to work 7 days a week.

"If I were not able anymore to come to the lab, that's retirement. Or if I had no more ideas of things," said Dresselhaus, who was quick to point out that wouldn't be likely. "Every year there's something new that comes along that's too exciting to quit."

At the very least, she said, she has to organize her office.

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    Julianna Goldman is a CBS News correspondent based in the Washington bureau.