Nergis Mavalvala is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and associate head of the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the detection of gravitational waves in the cosmos that ripple the fabric of space-time. Mavalvala is a leading member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team that, in early 2016, announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. Her work toward this breakthrough and since has helped to usher in a new era of astrophysics, opening a window into the non-light- emitting parts of the universe.
During decades of developing technologies for gravitational wave detection, Mavalvala has conducted pioneering experiments on the generation and application of special quantum states of light, particularly squeezed states of light, useful for improving the sensitivity of detectors by reducing quantum “noise.” She is also known for her work on laser cooling of macroscopic objects in order to enable the observation of quantum phenomena in human-scale systems.
Mavalvala received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 and was recognized as LGBTQ Scientist of the Year by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals in 2014. In 2015, she was honored, along with the rest of the LIGO team, with the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017 and, in the same year, received the Carnegie Corporation’s Great Immigrants award, which recognizes naturalized U.S. citizens who have made notable contributions to the progress of American society.
Prior to joining the physics faculty at MIT in 2002, Mavalvala was a postdoc- toral scholar and research scientist at the California Institute of Technology. At MIT, she was appointed associate department head of physics in 2015. An author of more than 120 scientific papers, Mavalvala earned her bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College and her doctorate in physics from MIT.
Audio and transcript of Nergis Mavalvala’s talk, “The 100-Year Quest for Einstein’s Elusive Gravitational Waves.”