Dr. Nergis Mavalvala was born and raised in Pakistan in 1968. Her parents encouraged her interests in the sciences and convinced her to pursue her academic interests abroad. This brought her to Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. She then went to MIT to receive a Ph. D in physics under the direction of Dr. Rainer Weiss. Her research at MIT centered around the creation of laser interferometric gravitational-wave detectors, creating the devices used to detect the phenomena predicted in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Her post-doctoral work led her to California Institute of Technology where she continued her work on gravitational wave detection through the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO. Then in 2002 she joined the faculty in the physics department at MIT, while continuing her work on LIGO with her previous doctoral advisor Dr. Weiss. Dr. Mavalvala’s primary contribution to the project was her work on the lasers and minimalizing the quantum distortion that occurs when measuring a distance a fraction of the length of a proton. She received the highly prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2010. In 2016 this project was the first to detect and measure the occurrence of gravitational waves 25 years after Dr. Mavalvala first started her work on them in 1991.
Dr. Mavalvala is currently the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at MIT and early this year was named Dean of the MIT School of Science. She lives with her partner and two children in Cambridge, MA. Dr. Mavalvala defines to herself as an “out, queer person of color,” but has been fortunate in that she rarely met opposition due to her status as an immigrant, a person of color, or as a lesbian. She says, though she did not recognize her sexuality until she was in her twenties, she grew up with supportive parents that did not force stereotypical gender norms on her. As a result, she found her way to success in a white, cis-male dominated field of science by being admittedly oblivious to the barriers that she had to break to get there. In an interview for Massive Science she said “since you do not notice these barriers, you cannot take them down systemically for others. I might have helped myself by being this way. But have I done anything useful for anyone else? I am not sure.” In 2014, though, she was recognized as the NOGLSTP Scientist of the Year and they eloquently noted that “[s]he is an inspiration for all minority scientists that proves that there are no limits to what you can do just by being yourself.”
Featured Image courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation