Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new Dean of MIT’s School of Science, effective Sept. 1. She will succeed Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics, after six years of service.
Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, is renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. She has received numerous awards and honors for her research and teaching, and since 2015 has been the associate head of the Department of Physics. Mavalvala will be the first woman to serve as dean in the School of Science.
Dr. Nergis Mavalvala attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Karachi, for her O-Level and A-Level. She moved to the United States in 1986 and enrolled at Wellesley College and got a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. As a graduate student at MIT, she conducted her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss and developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. Before graduation, Nargis with her physics professor, Robert Berg, co-authored a paper in Physical Review B: Condensed Matter.
After graduate school, Dr. Mavalvala served a postdoctoral researcher and a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, kickstarted her work with cosmic microwave background, and then eventually indulge the LIGO project. Mavalvala mainly focuses on two fields of physics: Gravitational Waves Astrophysics and quantum measurement science. She went on to do her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997.
Dr. Mavalvala joined the MIT physics faculty in 2002 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017. Born to a Parsi family, she was the younger of the two children. Her parents highly valued their daughters’ educational experiences and encouraged her to pursue higher education overseas. She was always interested in math and science and believed that she was intrinsically good at it.
Mavalval frequently questioned for gender discrimination and how she was able to break down this barrier. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, she states, “I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed. Everyone is capable, and I set benchmarks for all these women willing to pursue a career in STEM.
Mawalwala is often viewed as a role model for aspiring female scientists of South Asian descent. In her childhood, she involved in handy work and was not bound to stereotypical gender roles in South Asian culture.
In a television interview in 2016, She stated that “When everyone has access to education, that’s when all the other things come into place. You’ve got to do what gives you pleasure, got to find a way to do it. People should just do what they enjoy most, and I think for all of society whether it’s in Pakistan or elsewhere we have to create opportunities for young girls to do what they’re good at and do what they love to do must cultivate the sense of wonder in a child.”
Mavalvala was among the team of scientists who, for the first time, observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. On February 11, 2016, the detection of gravitational waves confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. After the announcement of the observation, she became an instant celebrity scientist in her birthplace of Pakistan. Talking to the press, she claimed that “we are really witnessing the opening of a new tool for doing astronomy.”
During an interview with Pakistani newspaper Dawn, after the detection of gravitational waves, she claimed that she was baffled by the public interest in her research in Pakistan. She said, “I really thought of what I want people to know in Pakistan as I have garnered some attention there. Anybody should be able to succeed — whether you’re a woman, a religious minority, or whether you’re gay. It just doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Mavalvala has also worked on the development of exotic quantum states of light, and in particular, the generation of light in squeezed coherent states. By injecting such states into the kilometer-scale Michelson interferometer of the LIGO detectors, her group significantly improved the sensitivity of the detector by reducing quantum noise such squeezed states also have many other applications in experimental physics.
She also worked on laser cooling, where the Optical cooling of mirrors to nearly absolute zero can help eliminate measurement noise arising from thermal vibrations. Part of her work focused on the extension of laser-cooling techniques to optically cool and trap more and more massive objects, both for the LIGO project and for other applications, such as to enable observation of quantum phenomena in macroscopic objects. Prominent results from her group in this area included cooling of a centimeter-scale object to a temperature of 0.8 kelvins and inspection of a 2.7-kilogram pendulum near its quantum ground state. These experiments lay the foundations for observing quantum behavior in human-scale objects.
On February 20, 2016, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jilani, conveyed the Government of Pakistan’s message of felicitation to Nergis Mavalvala for her outstanding achievement in the field of astrophysics. She won the first Lahore Technology Award launched by Information Technology University on December 17, 2017. In 2017, the Carnegie Corporation of New York honored Mavalvala as one of its Great Immigrants awards recipients. The awards go to “naturalized citizens who have made notable contributions to the progress of American society.” In 2014, NOGLSTP recognized Nergis Mavalvala as the LGBTQ Scientist of the Year. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
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