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⁠Nergis Mavalvala

⁠Nergis Mavalvala




Nergis Mavalvala, born in 1968, is a distinguished Pakistani-American astrophysicist who currently holds the esteemed position of Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She also serves as the Dean of the School of Science at MIT and was previously the Associate Head of the Department of Physics. Mavalvala is renowned for her pioneering contributions to the detection of gravitational waves as part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project. Her work in exploring and experimentally demonstrating macroscopic quantum effects, such as squeezing in optomechanics, has further cemented her reputation in the scientific community. In recognition of her exceptional contributions, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.

Mavalvala was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up primarily in Karachi. She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi, where she completed her O-Level and A-Level qualifications. In 1986, she moved to the United States to pursue higher education at Wellesley College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. She then joined MIT's physics department for her Ph.D., working under Dr. Rainer Weiss. She completed her Ph.D. in 1997, focusing on developing a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. Mavalvala comes from a Parsi family that practiced Zoroastrianism and is the younger of two children.

As a graduate student, Mavalvala conducted her doctoral research under Rainer Weiss, developing a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. After her Ph.D., she worked as a postdoctoral researcher and later as a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), initially focusing on the cosmic microwave background before transitioning to the LIGO project. She joined the MIT physics faculty in 2002. Her research has primarily focused on gravitational wave astrophysics and quantum measurement science. She has significantly contributed to the LIGO project, culminating in the first direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015, confirming a major prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity and marking a new era in astrophysics. In 2017, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Since 1991, Mavalvala has been an integral part of the LIGO team, contributing to the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves in 2015. This discovery provided concrete evidence of ripples in spacetime caused by catastrophic cosmic events, such as the collision of black holes. This achievement brought her significant recognition, especially in Pakistan, where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif praised her as an inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students. The Government of Pakistan formally congratulated her, and she accepted an invitation to revisit Pakistan.

Mavalvala's research has also focused on the optical cooling of mirrors to near absolute zero to reduce measurement noise from thermal vibrations. She has extended laser-cooling techniques to trap increasingly massive objects, contributing to the LIGO project and enabling the observation of quantum phenomena in macroscopic objects. Her notable achievements include cooling a centimeter-scale object to 0.8 Kelvin and observing a 2.7-kilogram pendulum near its quantum ground state, laying the groundwork for observing quantum behavior in human-scale objects.

Mavalvala has also advanced the development of exotic quantum states of light, particularly generating light in squeezed coherent states. By injecting these states into the kilometer-scale Michelson interferometer of the LIGO detectors, her group significantly improved the detector's sensitivity by reducing quantum noise. These squeezed states have numerous applications in experimental physics. Her group was the first to generate squeezed light using optomechanics at room temperature, compared to previous sources that operated at cryogenic temperatures.

Mavalvala is an openly queer scientist who advocates for diversity and inclusion in science. She speaks openly about her experiences as a lesbian and a Pakistani immigrant, describing herself as an "out, queer person of color." She credits her success to supportive mentors and a family environment that defied traditional gender roles. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, she emphasized the importance of education and opportunities for young girls and minorities in STEM fields. Mavalvala resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her partner and their two children. She maintains close ties with her extended family in Karachi and frequently visits Pakistan.

Throughout her illustrious career, Mavalvala has received numerous awards and honors. These include being Wellesley’s 2022 Commencement Speaker, winning the first Lahore Technology Award by Information Technology University in 2017, and being honored as one of the Great Immigrants award recipients by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2017. She was a co-recipient of the Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics as part of the LIGO team in 2016. In 2014, she was recognized as the LGBTQ Scientist of the Year by NOGLSTP and became an Optica Fellow. Other accolades include the Joseph F. Keithley Award For Advances in Measurement Science by the American Physical Society in 2013, a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, being named an American Physical Society Fellow in 2010, receiving the Edgerton Award for Faculty Achievement at MIT in 2007, the Sloan Research Fellowship in 2005, and the Phyllis Fleming Award for Excellence in Physics in 1990.

Nergis Mavalvala's career is a testament to the integration of rigorous scientific research with a commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion, making her a prominent and inspirational figure in modern astrophysics.


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Place of Birth: Karachi, Pakistan



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Date of Birth: December 24, 1968

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