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Nergis Mavalvala, Pakistani-American & Queer Astrophysicist

Dr. Nergis Mavalvala was born in Lahore and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. After attending the Covenant of Jesus and Mary in Karachi and completing her O-Levels and A-Levels, she moved to the United States and attended Wellesley College for her Bachelor’s in Physics and Astronomy from 1986 to 1990. She adored tinkering with vehicles and was often covered in grease up to her elbows as she came to understand the mechanics of bike repair. From a young age, she had a passion for math and physics, and her parents, both strong advocates of their daughters’ education, supported her decision to attend college abroad. Her decision to venture into astrophysics was based on her interest in the night sky, reminiscing, “I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.”

Despite the challenges that can arise from immigrating to another country, Mavalvala was known for always seeming comfortable in her skin, even during her time at Wellesley. Robert Berg, her physics professor at Wellesley, said, “Even when Nergis was a freshman, she struck me as fearless, with a refreshing can-do attitude.” She worked regularly with Berg to set up a laser and change an empty room into a functional laboratory. Before her graduation in 1990, Berg and Mavalvala had co-authored a paper in Physical Review B: Condensed Matter.

She went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for her doctorate degree and during her time there, joined Rainer Weiss’ research group. Rainer Weiss was her advisor and is now a professor of physics at MIT. During Mavalvala’s time at MIT, Weiss was trying to figure out how he could use an interferometer to detect gravitational waves. Interferometers are instruments that merge two or more sources of light to create interference patterns that can be measured and analysed. Mavalvala dedicated hours to the new-born project, assisting Weiss in creating an early prototype of a gravitational-wave detector as part of her Ph.D. thesis. Weiss’ dream eventually manifested into LIGO, the twin 4-kilometer-long interferometers that first directly detected gravitational waves, a groundbreaking discovery that won Weiss and others the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Through her contributions to the construction of the LIGO and detecting gravitational waves, Mavalvala has helped provide astrophysicists with a radically unique perspective on the universe, including direct observation of massive dark matter, large-scale nuclear matter, and a test of strong-field gravitation.

In 1997, Dr. Mavalvala attended California Institute of Technology (CalTech) for her postdoctoral work. There, she commenced her research studying the cosmic microwave background. Three years later, she became a staff scientist at the LIGO Laboratory with CalTech, where scientists were working with Weiss’ group at MIT to construct LIGO’s detectors. She spent two years with the Caltech team before she joined the faculty at MIT as an Assistant Professor of Physics. She went on to become the Associate Head of the Department of Physics from 2015 to 2020. In August 2020, she was named the new Dean of the prestigious MIT School of Science, one of the five schools of MIT. The President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif said “Nergis’s brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself. What excites me equally about her appointment as dean are the qualities I have seen in her as a leader: She is a deft, collaborative problem-solver, a wise and generous colleague, an incomparable mentor, and a champion for inclusive excellence. As we prepare for the start of this most unusual academic year, it gives me great comfort to know that the School of Science will remain in such capable hands.”

Her recent contributions to the building of the LIGO have been unquestionably vital to its success. This work focussed on minimizing, if not completely removing, barriers created due to quantum physics on the precision of standard optical interferometers. She did so by cooling the macroscopic components of the device (i.e., the mirrors) into a coherent quantum state. These components, large enough to view without magnification, showcase strange quantum properties previously seen only at the atomic level. Using such tactics with the LIGO instruments (that is, kilogram-scale mirrors separated by kilometers) has the ability to significantly increase the sensitivity of the device. With this and other technically challenging, unconventional methodologies like squeezed coherent states and optical springs, Dr. Mavalvala has made ground-breaking contributions to physics in the combined fields of optics, condensed matter, and quantum mechanics. Her experimental innovations are improving the ability of the scientific community to detect and quantify gravitational radiation with even greater precision. This data may be critical to incorporating gravitation within a unified theory of the basic forces in the universe.

While Dr. Mavalvala’s scientific contributions are more than enough to make her a role model for young girls across the world, she especially stands out as a ‘queer person of colour.’ During her time at Wellesley College, she came to terms with her sexuality and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her partner and their two children. She admits she figured her sexuality would make little difference to the people around her, and her instincts proved to be right. Thus, with Pakistan’s notable record of LGBTQ+ rights violations, it is even more significant that the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called her a source of inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students. “The entire nation is proud of her valuable contribution,” said Nawaz.

Dr. Mavalvala’s awards and honors speak for themselves: she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 and was recognized as LGBTQ Scientist of the Year by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals in 2014. In 2015, she was honored, along with the rest of the LIGO team with the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017 and, in the same year, received the Carnegie Corporation’s Great Immigrants award, which recognizes naturalized U.S. citizens who have made notable contributions to the progress of American society. She is also the first recipient of the Lahore Technology Award, given by the Information Technology University, a public university in Pakistan.

by Raina Talwar Bhatia


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