Age: 52 years
Born Place: Lahore
Thesis: Alignment issues in laser interferometric gravitational-wave detectors (1997)
Residence: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Fields: Astrophysics, Quantum mechanics
Awards: 2013 Joseph F. Keithley Award For Advances in Measurement Science, MacArthur Fellows
Known for: Interferometric gravitational waves, quantum measurement
Nergis Mavalvala (born 1968) is a Pakistani-American astrophysicist known for her role in the first observation of gravitational waves. She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is also the Associate Head of the Department of Physics. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
Mavalvala is best known for her work on the detection of gravitational waves in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, but she has also obtained prominent results on other physics problems that evolved out of LIGO: for example, she has performed pioneering experiments on laser cooling of macroscopic objects and in the generation of squeezed quantum states of light.
Mavalvala was born in Lahore but primarily raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Karachi, where she received her O-Level and A-Level qualifications. She moved to the United States in 1986 and enrolled at Wellesley College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. Before she graduated in 1990, Mavalvala and her physics professor, Robert Berg, co-authored a paper in Physical Review B: Condensed Matter. She also helped set up his lab. She went on to do her PhD in physics from MIT in 1997.
Born to a Parsi family, Mavalvala was the younger of the two children. Mavalvala’s parents highly valued their daughters’ educational experiences, and encouraged Mavalvala to pursue higher education overseas. Mavalvala was always interested in math and science as a child, and believed that she was intrinsically good at it, in contrast to the humanities. Mavalvala was raised in the Zoroastrian faith. A lesbian, Mavalvala and her partner have two children and reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. Mavalvala has extended family in Karachi and visited the city in 2010.
Being openly queer and Pakistani, Mavalvala gets a lot of questions based on her identity and roots. Mavalvala was not aware of her sexual orientation until after college. She stands out as an immigrant of Pakistan who describes herself as an “out, queer person of color.” Mavalvala is frequently questioned about gender roles and how she was able to break through the barrier and was able to pursue the career of her choice. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn Mavalvala states, “I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed.” She also speaks about the ability of individuals in Pakistan to break these gender roles and stigmas: “Anybody should be able to do those things. And I am proof of that because I am all of those things. With the right combination of opportunity, it was possible for me to do.”
Mavalvala is often viewed as a role model for aspiring female scientists of South Asian descent. As a young child Mavalvala was always involved in handy work, and was not bound to stereotypical gender roles in South Asian culture, due to the way her sister and she were raised. Mavalvala states that a lot of her success is accredited to good mentors in both the United States and Pakistan that encouraged her academic ability. In a television interview in 2016, Mavalvala 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, gotta 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”.
As a graduate student at MIT, she conducted her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss, where Mavalvala developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. After graduate school, she was a postdoctoral researcher and then a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, starting her work with cosmic microwave background, and then eventually working on the LIGO. Mavalvala mainly focuses on two fields of physics: Gravitational Waves Astrophysics and quantum measurement science. Dr. Mavalvala joined the MIT physics faculty in 2002. In 2017 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Awards and Recognition
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 Mavalvala as the LGBTQ Scientist of the Year.