On 18th August, 2020, Pakistan-born, Zoroastrian quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new Dean of the prestigious MIT School of Science, one of the five schools of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As the hitherto Associate Head of the Physics Department, Mavalvala will take over as the new Dean from September 1, succeeding Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics after six years of service, as per MIT News.
Mavalvala is renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As per the official report, “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.” She was also praised as “energised and optimistic” about her new role as Dean, even as she acknowledged the unprecedented challenges the school and the institute, as a whole, were facing during these challenging times.
Speaking on the occasion, Mavalvala said, “We’re in this moment where enormous changes are afoot. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and economic challenge, and we’re also in a moment, at least in US 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.”
MIT President, L. Rafael Reif, commended Mavalvala stating that her “brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself.” He added, “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.”
The report added that the news was announced by Provost Martin Schmidt via a letter emailed to the MIT community, stating, “I very much look forward to working with her 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.”
Born to a Parsi family in Karachi, Mavalvala received her early education from the Convent of Jesus and Mary school. She later moved to the United States as a teenager, attending Wellesley College (Massachusetts), where she completed her BA in Physics and Astronomy in 1990 and a PhD in physics in 1997 from MIT. Prior to that, Mavalvala was she was a postdoctoral associate and then a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), working with LIGO.
In 2010, she received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award and in 2016, Mavalvala was part of a team of scientists credited with the discovery of gravitational waves, a new window for studying the cosmos.