Biography About Nergis Mavalvala

1 year ago / by Swarnendu Biswas
Nergis Mavalvala
Image credits: MIT News

Exploring the Universe

Nergis Mavalvala is an eminent Pakistani and American astrophysicist who since September 2020 has been appointed as the Dean of the MIT’s School of Science; the first woman to have this much coveted position. That is one of the important recent news on Nergis Mavalvala. In 2017 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

She achieved fame for her groundbreaking work of observation of gravitational waves, which she carried out as a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. The pioneering observation was publicly announced to on 11th February 2016.

If one were to ask what is the profession of Nergis Mavalvala, it would be apt to describe her as a top-notch scientist and academician. However, if we want to be more specific, then we can say that Nergis Mavalvala is an astrophysicist.

Nergis is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the MIT.  In 2010, she was awarded with the highly prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Let us know a bit about Nergis Mavalvala; a fascinating lady of science. 

Liberated Upbringing

She was born in Lahore, in Pakistan to a Parsi family, and was raised in Karachi, another prominent city in Pakistan. She was the younger one to her sister. She did her schooling from  Convent of Jesus and Mary, Karachi. Since her school days only she displayed her predilection towards mathematics and science. It may sound astonishing but it is true that that when she was in high school, she was hired as a substitute teacher to teach mathematics in the 8th grade.

Not only her academic excellence was encouraged by her parents, but her parents never slotted her into preconceived gender roles. Nergis, who in her Karachi days, used to borrow tools and parts from the bike repairing man across the street to fix her bike, eventually went on to fix a daunting Physics problem.

Perhaps the fact that she was not saddled by her parents with the stereotypical gender roles, which are sadly still very much a part of the culture of the Indian subcontinent, helped her to develop her own identity and charter her own path.

In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Nergis once stated, “I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed. So I grew up thinking women can, must and should do anything and everything. That is very important for me.”

Research in the US

In 1986, Nergis Mavalvala went to the United States where she got enrolled   at Wellesley College. She received her bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the same institution four years later. Even before her graduation, Nergis had co-authored a scientific paper with her physics professor of that time, Robert Berg. She also helped Robert Berg to convert an empty room into a lab.

She earned her Phd. in 1997. Before that she failed in her PhD candidacy exam twice. She did her doctoral work under the famous American physicist, Dr. Rainer Weiss, where Nergis developed a prototype laser interferometer with the objective of detecting gravitational waves. Her doctoral thesis was titled Allignment issues in laser interferometric gravitational-wave detectors.

Subsequently she worked as a postdoctoral researcher and as a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology. Thereafter she joined the Physics faculty at MIT in 2002. Eventually, she began working with LIGO. In 2015, Nergis was appointed as the Associate Head of the Department of Physics in MIT.

The Great Detection

In September 2015, the first direct observation of gravitational waves was done. Nergis was among the team of scientists who detected gravitational waves for the first time. This is a great achievement of Nergis Mavalvala. Biography of her should give much focus on this aspect. However, here it deserves a mention that she has been working on gravitational waves since the last three decades, in fact since the beginning of her career in science, and her success story, like most genuine success stories, is the product of years of sustained and extensive hard work, which gave fuel to her creativity.

The gravitational waves detected by the LIGO team are ripples in the spacetime fabric which were generated by the motion of compact, massive astrophysical objects such as black holes and neutron stars.

 The detection confirmed a pioneering prediction of Albert Einstein‘s General Theory of Relativity. It can be safely said that General Theory of Relativity is one of the most revolutionary theories in the field of physics, which radically changed many long-held concepts of physics and paved the entry of modern physics in the domain of science.

Efforts to prove the existence of gravitational waves was going on for over fifty years, and even Albert Einstein  doubted whether these waves could ever be detected.

Other Significant Works

Besides detecting gravitational waves with the LIGO team, Nergis, who is rightly often being viewed as a role model for aspiring female scientists, has done groundbreaking experiments on laser cooling of macroscopic objects, and in the generation of squeezed quantum states of light.

Nergis’s specialization in physics are on two important edifices of the subject – gravitational wave astronomy  and quantum measurement science.

Over the years, she received several awards and honors for her research and teaching.

It is Personal

Nergis gives great emphasis on creating opportunities for young girls to do what they are good at and do what they love to do. She is also very much earnest about cultivating the sense of wonder among children.

Nergis, who was not aware of her sexual orientation till she completed her college, is openly lesbian and describes herself as an “out, queer person of color.” The eminent scientist lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States, with her partner. They have two children.


What is Nergis Mavalvala known for?

She is most known for the firstdetectionof gravitational waves, which she did as a leading member of LIGO.

What did Nergis Mavalvala discover?

She achieved world renown among scientific community for gravitational wave detection. The detection gave the proof of gravitational waves which was theoretically predicted by Albert Einstein‘s General Theory of Relativity. However, this detection cannot be termed as discovery in strict sense.

Where is Nergis Mavalvala from?

She was born in Lahore, raised in Karachi and did her scientific work in the US.

Where was Nergis Mavalvala born?

She was born in Lahore, in 1968. The age of Nergis Mavalvala is around 53 years.

Who is the new dean of MIT?

Since September 2020, Nergis Mavalvala is the Dean of the MIT’s School of Science.