1968 (age 49–50)|
Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan
|Residence||Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States|
|Known for||Interferometric gravitational waves, quantum measurement|
|Awards||2013 Joseph F. Keithley Award For Advances in Measurement Science, MacArthur Fellows|
|Fields||Astrophysics and Quantum Physics|
|Institutions||Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|Thesis||Alignment issues in laser interferometric gravitational-wave detectors (1997)|
|Doctoral advisor||Rainer Weiss|
Nergis Mavalvala is a Pakistani-American astrophysicist known for her role in the first observation of gravitational waves. She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is also the Associate Head of the Department of Physics. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. Mavalvala is best known for her work on the detection of gravitational waves in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, but she has also obtained prominent results on other physics problems that evolved out of LIGO: for example, she has performed pioneering experiments on laser cooling of macroscopic objects and in the generation of squeezed quantum states of light.
Mavalvala was born in Lahore but primarily raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Karachi, where she received her O-Level and A-Level qualifications. She moved to the United States in 1986 and enrolled at Wellesley College, where she received a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. Before she graduated in 1990, Mavalvala and her physics professor, Robert Berg, co-authored a paper in Physical Review B: Condensed Matter. She also helped set up his lab. She went on to do her PhD in physics from MIT in 1997.
Born to a Parsi family, Mavalvala was the younger of the two children. Mavalvala's parents highly valued their daughters' educational experiences, and encouraged Mavalvala to pursue higher education overseas. Mavalvala was always interested in math and science as a child, and believed that she was intrinsically good at it, in contrast to the humanities. Mavalvala was raised in the Zoroastrian faith. A lesbian, Mavalvala and her partner have two children and reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. Mavalvala has extended family in Karachi and visited the city in 2010.
Being openly queer and Pakistani, Mavalvala gets a lot of questions based on her identity and roots. Mavalvala was not aware of her sexual preference until after college. She stands out as an immigrant of Pakistan who describes herself as "out, queer person of color."  Mavalvala is frequently questioned about gender roles and how she was able to break through the barrier and was able to pursue the career of her choice. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn Mavalvala states "I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed" she also speaks about the ability of individuals in Pakistan to break these gender roles and stigmas "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 opportunity, it was possible for me to do." 
Mavalvala is often viewed as a role model for aspiring female scientists of South Asian descent. As a young child Mavalvala was always involved in handy work, and was not bound to stereotypical gender roles in South Asian culture, due to the way her sister and she were raised. Mavalvala states that a lot of her success is accredited to good mentors in both the USA and Pakistan that encouraged her academic ability. Mavalvala states When everyone has access to education that's when all the other things come into place "Got to do what gives you pleasure, gotta find a way to do it. People should just do what they enjoy most and i think for all of society whether it's in Pakistan or elsewhere we have to create opportunities for young girls to do what they're good at and do what they love to do must cultivate the sense of wonder in a child" 
As a graduate student at MIT, she conducted her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss, where Mavalvala developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. After graduate school, she was a postdoctoral researcher and then a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, starting her work with cosmic microwave background, and then eventually working on the LIGO. Mavalvala mainly focuses on two fields of physics: Gravitational Waves Astrophysics and quantum measurement science. Dr. Mavalvala joined the MIT physics faculty in 2002. In 2017 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Discovery of gravitational waves
Mavalvala was among the team of scientists who, for the first time, observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. Mavalvala has been working on gravitational waves since 1991. It was announced to the public on 11 February 2016. The detection confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity.
After the announcement of the observation, she became an instant celebrity scientist in her birthplace of Pakistan. Talking to the press she claimed that "we are really witnessing the opening of a new tool for doing astronomy."
During an interview with Pakistani newspaper Dawn, after the detection of gravitational waves, she claimed that she was baffled by public interest in her research in Pakistan. She said "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." In a statement by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister praised Mavalvala, calling her a source of inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students aspiring to become future scientists. He also stated that "the entire nation is proud of her valuable contribution."
On 20 February 2016, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jilani, conveyed the Government of Pakistan's message of felicitation to Mavalvala for her outstanding achievement in the field of astrophysics. He also invited her to re-visit Pakistan, which she accepted.
Optical cooling of mirrors to nearly absolute zero can help eliminate measurement noise arising from thermal vibrations. Part of Mavalvala's work focused on the extension of laser-cooling techniques to optically cool and trap more and more massive objects, both for the LIGO project and for other applications, such as to enable observation of quantum phenomena in macroscopic objects. Prominent results from her group in this area included cooling of a centimeter-scale object to a temperature of 0.8 kelvins and observation of a 2.7-kilogram pendulum near its quantum ground state. These experiments lay the foundations for observing quantum behavior in human-scale objects.
Quantum states of light
Mavalvala has also worked on the development of exotic quantum states of light, and in particular the generation of light in squeezed coherent states. By injecting such states into the kilometer-scale Michelson interferometer of the LIGO detectors, her group greatly improved the sensitivity of the detector by reducing quantum noise; such squeezed states also have many other applications in experimental physics.
Lahore Technology Award
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- Berardelli, Phil (9 April 2007). "Reflections of Absolute Zero". Science.
- "Press release: Laser-cooling brings large object near absolute zero". MIT News. April 5, 2007.
- Dave Reitze, Squeezed Light Experiment a Glowing Success!, LIGO Laboratory News (28 October 2011).
- Ulrik L. Andersen, Quantum optics: Squeezing more out of LIGO, Nature Photonics: News and Views, volume 7, pp. 589–590 (2013).
- "Nergis first recipient of Lahore Technology Award". The Nation. Retrieved 2017-12-19.
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