Dresselhaus was selected for the award for conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes, which are rolled-up sheets of carbon with exceptional electrical and mechanical properties. Dresselhaus has been a researcher for more than 40 years and was the first tenured woman professor at MIT's School of Engineering.

Dresselhaus is a native of the Bronx in New York City, where she attended the New York City public schools, completing her high school education at Hunter College High School in New York City. She then received a Fulbright Fellowship to attend the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University from 1951 to 1952. Dresselhaus received her master's degree at Radcliffe College in 1953 and her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1958.

Dresselhaus began her MIT career at the Lincoln Laboratory. During that time she switched from research on superconductivity to magneto-optics, and carried out a series of experiments which led to a fundamental understanding of the electronic structure of semi-metals, especially graphite.

A leader in promoting opportunities for women in science and engineering, Dresselhaus received a Carnegie Foundation grant in 1973 to encourage women's study of traditionally male-dominated fields, such as physics. In 1973 she was appointed to the Abby Rockefeller Mauze chair, endowed in support of the scholarship of women in science and engineering. "My motivation for a scientific career was my love for science," says Dresselhaus.

"The world needs science...science needs women"

Along with Dresselhaus, the other laureates were: Ligia Gargallo from Chile for her contribution to understanding the properties of polymers in solution: Ameenah Gurib-Fakim from Mauritius for analysing plants for biomedical applications; Tatiana Birshtein from Russia for her work on understanding large molecules, such as polymers; and Margaret Brimble from New Zealand for her contribution to the synthesis of complex natural products for use in drugs for clinical conditions like Alzheimer's, epilepsy and cancer.

Lindsay Owen-Jones, chairman of L'Oréal, and Koïchiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, presented each laureate with a $100 000 award. Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes of the Collège de France in Paris presided over the ceremony and Baroness Susan Greenfield (a well known advocate of women in science) of Oxford University in the UK delivered the keynote address.

Now in its ninth year, the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award is the only one to honour outstanding women scientists. Also honoured at the Paris ceremony were 15 UNESCO-L'Oréal International Fellows – promising young women scientists in the life sciences.