Nergis Mavalvala: Queer woman of color and celebrated astrophysicist

Nergis Mavalvala: Queer woman of color and celebrated astrophysicist

A Pakistani-born, openly queer woman with an unconventional dream, Mavalvala describes herself as an “out, queer person of color”.

A Pakistani-born, openly queer woman with an unconventional dream, Mavalvala describes herself as an “out, queer person of color”. An astrophysicist and a non-conformist mother of two, Mavalvala is known for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she carried out as a top member of LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). 

Early wonder

Raised in Karachi, Pakistan, Mavalvala often found herself elbow-deep in grease, immersed in the mechanics of bike repair. “I used to borrow tools and parts from the bike-repair man across the street to fix my bike," she says. She would also spend time on the rooftop of her apartment building as a child and wonder about the universe, especially on nights when there were meteor showers. Mavalvala would question the universe’s inception and didn’t believe any religious explanations for it, even as a child.

In school, she leaned toward math and physics early on and her parents fully supported both their daughters’ education. “I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed,” she says. “So I grew up thinking women can, must, and should do anything and everything. That is very important for me.” Her parents proceeded to encourage Mavalvala to apply to college overseas, which went against the cultural norm. She attended Wellesley in 1986, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy. 

She then obtained her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997, where her advisor, Rainier Weiss, was working on the idea of an interferometer to detect gravitational waves like minute disturbances rippling out through space from cataclysmic events millions to billions of light-years away. Mavalvala dove into the project, helping Weiss build an early prototype as part of her Ph.D. thesis. This 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.

Being someone who had no idea about her sexual orientation back in her early twenties, she happened to fall in love with a girl just like any other college-goer. Even when the LGBTQ+ community was not accepted by many, Mavalvala says her work environment was quite supportive on the contrary and her girlfriend used to often visit her at the lab. 

A scientific milestone

After completing her Ph.D., Mavalvala attended Caltech as a postdoc, researching the cosmic microwave background. She proceeded to join as a staff scientist at the LIGO laboratory in 2000 where she collaborated with other researchers to build LIGO detectors. After spending two years with the Caltech team, Mavalvala went back to MIT in 2002 to join the faculty as an assistant professor of physics, where she worked on designing different parts of the interferometers and helped build the MIT LIGO group. She also led a team of scientists in developing tools to study quantum effects on LIGO detectors. 

As LIGO detected early detection of gravitational waves in 2016, Mavalvala has been sought after as an unofficial ambassador of astrophysics and STEM to the public. Since 2015, she has been the associate head of the Department of Physics. Mavalvala was also the first woman to serve as dean of the School of Science.

A celebrated queer woman scientist of color

Her deep passion for science and vibrant personality has brought her public attention and she is celebrated being an openly queer woman scientist of color. Mavalvala continues to engage the audience with her devotion to science and discovery and reflects on living at the intersection of her queer and immigrant identities. She serves as a role model and an inspiration for students who wish to pursue a field in which they might not see themselves represented often.

“I really thought of what I want people to know in Pakistan as I have garnered some attention there. Anybody should be able to succeed — whether you’re a woman, a religious minority or whether you’re gay. It just doesn’t matter,” she says. “Anybody should be able to do those things. And I am proof of that because I am all of those things. With the right combination of opportunities, it was possible for me to do.”


The photo used in the banner is by Bryce Vickmark.

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