- The Lahore-born Mavalvala becomes the first woman to serve in that position.
Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science, effective Sept. 1. She will succeed Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics, after six years of service. The Pakistani American becomes the first woman to serve as dean in the School of Science.
MIT News said, 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.”
For the past five years as associate head of physics, Mavalvala oversaw the department’s academic programming and student well-being. “In collaboration with department head Peter Fisher, she co-founded the Physics Values Committee, a group of faculty, staff, and students who advise the department on issues of well-being, respect, inclusion, collaboration, and mentorship,” MIT News said. The committee developed the department’s first values statement, which has become a model for departments and units across MIT, and at other universities.
Mavalvala launched initiatives to meet the department’s goals of education and advising, while aiming to reduce stress and workload on students, faculty, and staff. and also helped to revise the department’s graduate admissions procedures in order to increase equity and promote a more diverse student body.
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,” according to MIT News. In school, she gravitated toward math and physics early on, and with encouragement from her parents applied to colleges overseas.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, from Wellesley College, before moving to MIT in 1990, where she pursued a PhD in physics. After completing her PhD work at MIT, under the guidance of her advisor, Rainier Weiss, Mavalvala went to Caltech in 1997 as a postdoc, studying the cosmic microwave background.
In 2000, she joined 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.
Mavalvala is a recipient of numerous honors and awards, including in 2010 the MacArthur Fellowship. In 2014, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals recognized her as the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the year, and in 2015 she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, as part of the LIGO team. In 2017, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. That same year, the Carnegie Corporation of New York recognized Mavalvala as a Great Immigrant honoree. She is also the first recipient of the Lahore Technology Award, given by the Information Technology University, a public university in Pakistan.