Pakistan-born quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvava, who is renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, will succeed Michael Sipser as the new dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Science.
Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science, effective September 1 and she will succeed Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics, after six years of service, reported MIT News.
Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, is renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
She has received numerous awards and honors 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.
Nergis Mavalvala named School of Science dean 👏🏻: Astrophysicist and associate head of the physics department will succeed Michael Sipser. https://t.co/ZqXQukyB6A @ScienceMIT pic.twitter.com/Q780QX3xpk
— Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (@MIT) August 17, 2020
“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.”
Provost Martin Schmidt announced the news on Monday in a letter emailed to the MIT community, writing, “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.”
As with most everything she takes on, Mavalvala is energized and optimistic about the role ahead, even as she acknowledges the unprecedented challenges that the school, and the Institute as a whole, are facing 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. A tinkerer by nature, she often got up to her elbows in grease as she absorbed herself in the mechanics of bike repair. In school, she gravitated to math and physics early on, and her parents, strong advocates of both their daughters’ education, encouraged her to apply to college overseas.
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. Her advisor, Rainier Weiss, now professor emeritus of physics, was working out how to physically realize his idea of an interferometer to detect gravitational waves — minute disturbances rippling out through space from cataclysmic events millions to billions of light years away.
Mavalvala dove into the fledgling project, helping 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, the twin 4-kilometer-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.
After completing her PhD work at MIT, Mavalvala went to Caltech in 1997 as a postdoc, studying the cosmic microwave background. In 2000, she joined on as a staff scientist at the LIGO Laboratory, where researchers were collaborating with Weiss’ group at MIT to build LIGO’s detectors. She spent two years with the Caltech team before accepting a position that took her back to MIT, where she joined the faculty in 2002 as assistant professor of physics.
Since then, she has helped to build up the MIT LIGO group, where she has worked to design and improve different parts of the interferometers. She also has led a team of scientists in developing tools to study and manipulate the barely perceptible quantum effects on LIGO’s massive detectors.
“To make an experiment like LIGO work, as large and complex that it is, takes the collaboration of hundreds of scientists, across geographical and cultural distances,” says Mavalvala, who sees useful crossover with her new role at the School of Science helm. “It’s good training for the dean’s position, because that’s going to require also spanning not just different fields of physics, but different fields of science, and learning the language of those fields.”