Meet queer Pak-born astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala who's now dean of MIT School of Science
Darren McCollester

Nergis Mavalvala, a Pakistan-born, has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science. Earlier, a professor of physics, Mavalvala ticks all the boxes of a perfect guide to a student.

“Nergis’s brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

Mavalvala will be the first woman to take charge as the dean in the School of Science. She will now replace Michael Sipser officially on September 1.

Now, with the world fighting the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, Mavalvala is all set to buck up and take charge as the Dean of School of Science.

Mavalvala tells MIT News, “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 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, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, is renowned for her work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Her exemplary work has earned her numerous awards and honors. Since 2015, she has served as the associate head of the Department of Physics.

At MIT, as the associate head of physics for the past five years, Mavalvala looked after the department's academic program, implemented new and flexible doctoral classes.

She collaborated with the department head Peter Fisher to co-found 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. She has taken up initiatives to meet the department's goals related to education while also aiming to reduce stress and workload on students, staff, and faculty.

She is a great professor who prioritizes her students and listens to them and their grievances.

Born to a Parsi family in Lahore, she moved to US in 1986 and enrolled at Wellesley College, to pursue physics and astronomy and graduated in 1990. Mavalvala and her physics professor at college, Robert Berg, co-authored a paper in Physical Review B: Condensed Matter. She went on to pursue PhD in physics from MIT in 1997.

Berg describes "Nergis as a freshman who was fearless with a refreshing can-do attitude." She even helped Berg, who was a new faculty back then, transform an empty room into a lab.

Mavalvala describes herself as "out, queer person of color.” A girl with no clue about her sexual orientation back in her early twenties, she fell in love with a girl just like any other college-goer. Her girlfriend visited her at the lab. Even now as the LGBTQ+ community is not accepted by many, Mavalvala says her work environment was quite supportive.

Well, she was questioned about her sexuality and her roots. About how her family reacted to it. She said in an interview, "I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed."

Describing how supportive her parents had been towards her career choices, she says “I used to borrow tools and parts from the bike-repair man across the street to fix my bike." While her mother objected to the grease stains, they never said such skills were off-limits to the two sisters.

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