Women of Discovery: Q&A With Nergis Mavalvala

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Nergis Mavalvala is the associate head of the Department of Physics and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at MIT. She is a physicist whose research focuses on the detection of gravitational waves from violent events in the cosmos that warp and ripple the fabric of spacetime. She is part of the scientific team that in early 2016 announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors. She will receive our Air & Space Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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WINGS WorldQuest: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Nergis Mavalvala: As a physicist, I had the incredible experience of being part of a major scientific discovery — the first detection of gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein a hundred years earlier.

But I didn’t always know this is what I would do. Even though I was drawn to science from an early age, I never heard of gravitational waves until I was in graduate school. 

I was a doctoral student at MIT when I first met my advisor and mentor, Rai Weiss. I was looking for an interesting physics problem to work on, so Rai told me about LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and the quest to detect gravitational waves. When I first heard about the precision needed — that we would need to measure changes in distances a thousand times smaller than an atomic nucleus — I thought the whole enterprise was insane. I thought I was looking for something interesting, not something impossible. But once I understood what a game changer it would be if we succeeded, I knew I had to try. That’s how I got started working on LIGO, and 25 years later, we made our first discoveries of gravitational waves. 

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

NM: When we study the universe, we learn about our own history and our future. Almost everything we know about our universe, we know because we humans have studied light from the heavens. But we know there are objects in the sky that do not give off light. Black holes, for example, are stars that have so much mass that even light cannot escape their gravitational pull. Such objects, with strong gravity, emit gravitational waves, which travel to us as ripples in space-time. The celebrated gravitational waves we’ve detected were emitted during the violent collisions of black holes and neutron stars in the distant universe. 

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we have opened a completely new window into the universe. For the first time we can use gravity instead of light to look at dark objects, which may give off no light but emit gravitational waves. And these gravitational waves bring inherently very different information than light does because they come from different physical processes in stars. So wonderful as these first discoveries are, the real excitement is that we have a new method of looking at the universe. There are many mysterious dark objects lurking in the sky waiting to be discovered, and we have created instruments that can measure their gravity even if they give off no light. This new way of studying the universe is a paradigm shift that promises explorations we have never before done.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

NM: As with all complex issues, I don’t believe it’s a single factor. In formative years, girls are either explicitly discouraged from science, or get turned off simply because they don’t see many models of scientist that look like them. In later years, for many women scientific careers are derailed by systemic bias, lab and workplace cultures, tensions between work and family life, lack of support, and the dwindling number of women who advance. 

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

NM: My kids, literally and figuratively. 

But I also love solving puzzles and problems. Every day brings new challenges, new puzzles to solve, and that’s what makes life interesting. Sometimes they are scientific puzzles, sometimes it’s human engineering, sometimes it’s the most mundane daily life things. 

As a scientist, the promise of new discoveries, of unlocking Nature’s secrets, keeps me going. 

WWQ: What’s your next challenge? 

NM: I have spent a good part of my career developing new technologies to make better gravitational wave detectors. I get great pleasure from working with my students and colleagues on new ideas, and seeing them (students, colleagues, and ideas) succeed. Over the next couple of decades, I would love to see a new generation of instruments get built to discover gravitational waves further out in space, perhaps even to the edge of the universe. That’s not going to be easy — it’s technically challenging and expensive. 

But there’s a big universe out there, waiting to be discovered, and lots of clever and useful technologies right here on earth waiting to be developed, so we have to try. 



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