Pakistani-American astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala named MIT school dean
BOSTON: Pakistani-American astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala, known for her role in the first observation of gravitational waves, been named the new dean of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Science effective 1st September.
She will succeed Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics, after six years of service. For the past five years as associate head of physics, Mavalvala oversaw the department’s academic programming and student wellbeing.
Mavalvala is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
She has received numerous awards and honours for her research and teaching, and since 2015 has been the associate head of the Department of Physics. Mavalvala will be the first woman to serve as dean in the School of Science.
“Nergis’s brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “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.”
Mavalvala said she is energised and optimistic about the role ahead, while acknowledging the unprecedented challenges the institute faes in these shifting times.
“We’re in this moment where enormous changes are afoot,” Mavalvala says. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and economic challenge, and we’re also in a moment, at least in U.S. history, where the imperative for racial and social justice is really strong. As someone in a leadership position, that means you have opportunities to make an important and hopefully lasting impact.”
Mavalvala was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up in Karachi. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy at Wellesley College before moving to MIT in 1990, where she pursued a PhD in physics.
Her advisor, Rainier Weiss, now professor emeritus of physics, was working out how to physically develop an interferometer to detect gravitational waves — minute disturbances rippling out through space from events millions to billions of light-years away.
Mavalvala helped Weiss to build an early prototype of a gravitational-wave detector as part of her PhD thesis. Weiss’ idea would eventually take shape as LIGO, twin 4-kilometre-long interferometers that in 2016 made the first direct detection of gravitational waves, a historic discovery that won Weiss and others the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.