Pakistani Genius Nergis Mavalvala Becomes Dean of MIT School of Science

Nergis Mavalvala Dean of MIT School of Science

Pakistan-born Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science as reported by MITNews. Provost Martin Schmidt announced the news in a letter to the MIT community, “I very much look forward to working with Nergis and to benefiting from her unerring sense of scientific opportunity, infectious curiosity, down-to-earth manner and practical wisdom. I hope you will join me in congratulating her as she brings her great gifts as a leader to this new role.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif also approved of her appointment, saying of Mavalvala, “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.”

Karachiite Moving to US

Mavalvala’s genius has earned her many honors: In 2014, she was recognized as the the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the year by National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, and in 2015 she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, as part of the LIGO team. In 2017, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the same year, the Carnegie Corporation of New York recognized Mavalvala as a Great Immigrant honoree. Since 2015 has been the associate head of the Department of Physics. She is also the first recipient of the Lahore Technology Award, given by the Information Technology University, a public university in Pakistan.

Nergis MavalvalaNergis Mavalvala – Photo: MacArthur Foundation

In 2010, when she earned her MacArthur Fellowship, former female students wrote to her saying that she was a model for what was possible for women. At different points in her scientific career, lesbian and gay students and colleagues also mentioned being inspired by her example. As for Nergis herself, she has always been confident and comfortable in her skin and recognizes the importance of being a role model. “I am just myself,” she says, adding, “but out of that comes something positive.”

Born to a Parsi family in Karachi, Mavalvala received her early education from the Convent of Jesus and Mary school. At Wellesley College, she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, before moving to MIT in 1990, where she pursued a PhD in physics. Professor of Physics at Wellesley College, Robert Berg said of her, “Even when Nergis was a freshman, she struck me as fearless, with a refreshing can-do attitude.”

From early on, Mavalvala exhibited intelligence and a penchant for working with her hands. “I used to borrow tools and parts from the bike-repair man across the street to fix my bike,” she told SceinceMag.org. Her mother objected to the grease stains, “but my parents never said such skills were off-limits to me or my sister.” Her parents supported her education and made sure she was not bound by societal gender roles. Once in the United States, she did not feel bound by U.S. social norms as she recalls.

LIGO and Einstein’s Gravitational Waves

Mavalvala first made waves in 2016, when she along with a team of sceientists devised a way to successfully detect gravitational waves, ripples in space and time as hypothesised by Albert Einstein. Her scientific prowess along with the years of accumulated knowledge in her field proved her to be instrumental in this achievement.

After her first year as a graduate student in MIT, Mavalvala’s adviser was moving to Chicago and she had decided not to follow him. It was then that she met her new advisor in Rainer Weiss, a renowned physicist and professer. “What do you know?” Weiss asked of her and when she began listing the classes she had taken, interrupted her with, “What do you know how to do?” Mavalvala who had been building on her practical skills since early on, mentioned her competence with machining, electronic circuitry, and building a laser.

In graduate school, Mavalvala worked on proof-of-principle interferometers at tabletop scale. Mavalvala devised an automatic alignment system for the complex interferometer to make sure it is aligned correctly. This was taken further when her work was incorporated in the design of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which is run by MIT and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Despite many difficulties, Pakistan continues to produce bright students and scientists. Earlier this month, Pakistani whiz Natalia Najam became a Guinness World Record Holder.

(sources: MITNews and ScienceMag.org)

About Sarmad Tariq

A self-professed "jack of all trades, master of none" with degrees in Computer Science and English Literature and a love for writing poetry that he seldom shares on social media.

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