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CAMBRIDGE: Quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala pictured in an MIT laboratory in Massachusetts in this file photo.
CAMBRIDGE: Quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala pictured in an MIT laboratory in Massachusetts in this file photo.

KARACHI: The euphoria in Pakistan over a scientific breakthrough hypothesised by Albert Einstein a century ago has come as a big surprise to Professor Nergis Mavalvala, the expat Karachi-born MIT professor who assisted a team of scientists in the historic detection of gravitational waves.

“I am baffled by how much interest there is in this — can you tell me what’s behind it?” she asks during a phone interview with Dawn.

Dr Mavalvala is referring to the viral jubilation across social media back in the country where she was born and raised, where scores are celebrating her efforts as a member of the US-based LIGO Scientific Collabora­tion at the helm of this discovery.

Among the hundreds of comments under news articles and Facebook posts, many readers have attributed her success to the various ingredients that characterised her life here: her Pakistani roots, the Parsi community she belongs to and her schooling at Kara­chi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary.

What is behind the success of a woman who grew up in Pakistan as a member of a minority community with the unconventional dream of being a physicist?

But what really is behind the success of a woman who grew up in Pakistan as a member of a minority community with the unconventional dream of being a physicist and her steady pursuit of it at institutes such as Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

“I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed,” Dr Mavalvala says. “So I grew up thinking women can, must and should do anything and everything. That is very important for me.”

“My parents are not scientists and don’t necessarily fully follow the things I work on. But they have always been supportive. They always felt ‘if this is what she wants to do, let’s get out of the way and let her go with it’ — that’s a powerful situation to grow up in.”

She adds, “There was no pressure to do something that was their dream rather than mine.”

Although she has not visited Pakistan much in the last 30 years as most of her immediate and extended family is settled abroad, Dr Mavalvala is mindful of what she wants Pakistanis to know about her journey:

“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,” she says.

“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.”

More than Dr Mavalvala’s association with a country or institution, it is unmistakable that her questioning mind and approach to chase what she loves has culminated in this marvellous discovery made by a team of nearly 1,000 scientists across the world.

“Growing up, I didn’t know there was a subject such as astrophysics. I did know there was physics and I did know there was a sky filled with pretty interesting objects,” says Dr Mavalvala.

“I was pretty young when I started to learn about the night sky. I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.”

Even as she joins her jubilant colleagues at the Laser Interferometric Gravitat­io­nal Wave Observatory and other scientists across the world in the realisation of this advancement, Dr Mava­lvala still feels they have “just chipped the tip on an iceberg”.

“This discovery is just the beginning. We’ve found black holes that we didn’t expect to be so massive… but just as we have discovered them we have many more questions to answer,” she says.

“How do they grow so big? My sense is that [with] every major discovery… the moment you feel like you’ve made the discovery is followed by a realisation that you have actually only opened up more questions that you need to answer. It’s really fun!”

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2016

Comments (67) Closed

Adrish Feb 15, 2016 07:42am

Good goining, keep up the great work... you are an aspiration for all the young girls out there...

solani Feb 15, 2016 07:50am

Its not right we keep our girls in home (char diwari), not even think about their education. Nargis shows us what is the power of education is. We like to see our girls like leaders, professors, teachers etc. Nargis you make proude of your parents as well as Pakistan (Jitiraho).

Naeem Feb 15, 2016 08:09am

What an inspiration for all young girls and boys. Congratulations. Please sponsor at least 2 girls to help them reach the same heights you have reached

zia Feb 15, 2016 08:13am

much to learn :

1) Success comes to genuine people who are persistently truthful , have upright character and not trying short cuts or dreaming for an over night victory.

2) Also right person, right time, right environment ( that includes many factors)

3) Respect everyone, Pakistan belong to all of it citizens

4) Parents are key to child success. Parents please be honest, truthful, show exemplary character, do not bribe or cheat , you will see your children succeed.

5) Muslims please stop criticizing day and night , change your self and your surroundings, do not waste time on facebook, TV shows, Dramas and documentaries, on fashion and fads that results in nothing, life is short use it for your best and for others.

6) Education is the way to go. Enemies of Pakistan ( our traditional politicians do not want this to happen in Pakistan )

Waleed Javaid Feb 15, 2016 08:15am

This is as good as it can be, you have made all the Pakistanis proud and taught us with example that anything is possible if one was passionate and dedicated about one's goal in life, for you to stand in league with Einstein is something right out of fantasy, way to go Miss Nergis.

stranger Feb 15, 2016 08:24am

@Naeem Please don't ask the scientist for money. She has already inspired many to study and excel in sciences. So, the duty on her part is already done.

Deependra Feb 15, 2016 08:57am

The fact is the way she was brought up -- freedom which is a part of their religion, if you may.

JP Feb 15, 2016 09:00am

The most important quotes:

"That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child".

“I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed”

A nation cannot raise a sizable scientific force by pushing too much of religious explanations or telling women what their place is.

Nizamuddin Ahmad Aali Feb 15, 2016 09:23am

Why in the world se is identified as Parsi. She is simply a daughter of Pakistan. Thank you Nergis. You have made us proud.

wellwisher Feb 15, 2016 09:26am

now thousands like her will come up.Long live education for girls.

Amer Mahi Feb 15, 2016 09:32am

Professor Nergis- Please DONT forget Pakistan and its people. Please help in any way you can. Education for all and specially girl among is needed more than ever! Many thanks in advance!

Chamatkar Feb 15, 2016 09:36am

Congrats Nergis Mavalvala, keep it up,we wish all the success .

Siri Feb 15, 2016 09:41am

You are not only an inspiration for the Pakistani nation, but for all the countries around. Women are by far underrepresented in this field. Great achievement, respect!

M. Baluch Feb 15, 2016 09:45am

A lot of wisdom in what Dr. Mavalvala has said and not said. Also a great template for raising children to retain a zest to be curious about nature and phenomena, and how not to constrain females to be prepared only for roles as wives.

Maher USA Feb 15, 2016 09:55am

Both DJ (Dayamal Jetharam) College(1887) & NED ( Nadir Edulgee Dinshaw) College (1921) now University were established by minority philanthropists in Karachi. Dr Qadir Khan & many such studied at DJ & NED. This gives an insight on the stress on education in Karachi.

Beauty Pakistan Feb 15, 2016 10:06am

Brilliant, our proud Pakistan sister.... go ahead with your quest of scientific discoveries....

shk Feb 15, 2016 10:13am

so proud of you, people like you bring good name to Pakistan.

Amir Ali Khan Feb 15, 2016 10:16am

In order to progress and catch up with modern times , we need to come out of the cocoon of conservatism , and also give higher priority to education.Right now we have a rotten educational system with outdated syllabi and least respect for the teaching profession.Liberal thinking and probing minds are imperative for progress and prosperity.

Nomi Feb 15, 2016 10:22am

Pakistan is proud of you.

common man Feb 15, 2016 10:35am

Parsis are generally Intelligent people good going girl

Hari Feb 15, 2016 10:41am

Congratulations to her, good that she left Pakistan. If not she would have been stoned to death for obvious reasons.

Zafar Feb 15, 2016 11:35am

Excuse me. I still couldn't single out her contribution. The research paper contains more than one thousand names of researchers that work in the lab as a team. We should grow up as a nation.

Shahzad Ahmed Feb 15, 2016 11:52am

Good work Doc. you have made us proud

ABCD Feb 15, 2016 12:20pm

@Zafar : She is one of them, and she was born as Pakistani. It is a proud moment for all, not only for Pakistan but also for entire world. For India, a complete group is working for LIGO and is called INDIGO.

wanghai Feb 15, 2016 12:26pm

by the way ,congrats very much

Blue Saffron Feb 15, 2016 12:26pm

Well done Nergis. We are so proud of you.

wanghai Feb 15, 2016 12:26pm

just keep pursue your dream,you will realize it one day

crisp Feb 15, 2016 12:33pm

Pakistan .... and the Pakistanis. Cool

atheist Feb 15, 2016 01:51pm

Contribution of India in gravitational wave discovery- IndIGO has currently over 70 member scientists. 11 Indian institutions are nodal institutions of IndIGO. Bala Iyer of Raman Research Institute is the Chairperson and Tarun Souradeep of Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics is the Spokesperson. The international advisory committee is chaired by theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar and has members from several international as well as Indian research institutions. IndiGO is a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Ahmar Qureshi Feb 15, 2016 02:24pm

I wish for all women to come forward & take active part in research work. It is an irony that in our society the common people (so called middle or working class) is in a quest to fulfill the basic needs to make a living, with this trend the people are becoming more self centered & less innovative, if all basic necessities are being fulfilled by the Government, the people will start to deliver such wonders! Great Work Nargis!

PETER REGO Feb 15, 2016 02:35pm

congratulations excellent job done.. the reward of a job well done is to have done it.

Afsana Feb 15, 2016 02:42pm

Well's really outstanding

Afsana Feb 15, 2016 02:46pm

We are proud of you...

Afsana Feb 15, 2016 02:46pm

You're good example for all women of pakistan

Maryam Feb 15, 2016 02:58pm

@JP I understand your temptation, as of many others to associate religion with the lack of opportunity. However, you should be careful in understanding that religion is not synonymous with obstinancy, rather its a representation of faith and values. It is our fundamentalist tendencies and insecurities that lead in confusing the two

Zafar Feb 15, 2016 03:00pm

@ABCD I would proud if I get to know how many times she visited Pak and laid down the base for others to work abroad. The article says the quite opposite. If you want to proud then why not Prof Salaam and his brain child ICTP ...

Maryam Feb 15, 2016 03:09pm

@atheist Good points. I think it's really some food for thought for all Pakistanis why we lag so enormously in terms of scientific and technological achievements compared to India

parveez Feb 15, 2016 03:10pm

Wake up Pakistan. Education is the only way to improve our country. We need every child to go to school, it should be made a law. I am sure if we can afford, we should sponsor bright children. That would be a start. But we must take the first step.

aamir Feb 15, 2016 04:03pm

At least we are celebrating her achievement despite her being Parsi, though previously we had lost Abdusalam the greats scientist of Pakistan just because of his controversial religious believes.

Tejaswi Feb 15, 2016 04:14pm

Its really delightful that Pakistani people taking pride in their scientists

SGH Feb 15, 2016 04:24pm

Thank you Ms. Atika Rehman for this interesting interview. Prof. Mavalvala has given important advices for young girls to work hard for their dreams. Also thoughtful ideas for the parents.

Wish all the best to Prof. Mavalvala. Thank you for giving us a moment of happiness.

Tariq, Lahore Feb 15, 2016 05:23pm

This is the kind of 'pioneering spirit' that we need inspire in our youngsters through good education! Skies the limit!

Bobb Mack Feb 15, 2016 06:31pm

@stranger Naeem is right and sponsoring does not have to be in monetary terms. She could certainly give ideas to our higher education commission and promote the case of girls who wish to pursue studies in advanced sciences.

Bobb Mack Feb 15, 2016 06:39pm

@JP Despite how religion is interpreted and followed, there is a growing number of women who have the freedom to do what they want. It is wrong to assume that Islamic culture means locking up females behind four walls. Superficial knowledge or preconceived ideas about Islam tend to encourage false opinions.

Afzal Feb 15, 2016 06:45pm

@Nizamuddin Ahmad Aali Indians would love to see her achievement related to her Parsi roots and not to Pakistan.....and that is typical Hindu mentality. Whenever a Pakistani does something big the Indians seem to go in a denial mode. I love to see them disappointed and jealous!

Ibrar Feb 15, 2016 06:56pm

@Zafar Let us come out of this unfortunate mode of giving false impression about the country. Yes we do have problems which we share with the rest of the third world but what you have said is extraordinarily extreme.

Wali Wake Feb 15, 2016 08:06pm

@Zafar She is the LEADER of the team that is the leader team in this whole project- which was conceived by the MIT and Caltech teams. Please grow up first!

Dr M.Ismail Feb 15, 2016 08:39pm

Nargis congratulation.I am afraid now when I knew that u belong to a parsi minority community in Karachi. we live in the sea of extremism. we have thrown away Prof Salam out of country. God bless u .I have great worries for u.

Fahad Feb 15, 2016 09:22pm

Thank you Nergis. You have really made us Pakistanis proud. And by the way if I was the Prime Minister I would have really made you the Science and Education Minister for life. I think you are the real pride of Pakistan

Mehar Feb 15, 2016 09:54pm

Her contribution is to the design of the equipment that made the detection of the gravitational waves possible. Her MIT thesis was based on how to design equipment that can isolate lasers from all external forces - that is extremely difficult because the gravitational waves being measured have such a timy force that even vibrations of atoms in the receptors inside the equipment can mask the force - therefore, her contribution to the design of the equipment is in fact quite important.

Uday Feb 15, 2016 10:08pm

Mullas, should learn something from this.

Najjee Feb 16, 2016 02:16am

An excellent role model for all of us Pakistanis.

Taimur Feb 16, 2016 02:34am

@Hari thanks for your great comments and reflection of your real self its quite obvious

Najam Feb 16, 2016 03:56am

Spot on. Let's move beyond race, religion, gender, ethnicity and support each other in realization and actualization of their selves.

Pakistani women are making big waves( mukhtaran Mai, sharmeen, Malala, and now Natgis).

Need to learn to be open and all inclusive.

Home Alone Feb 16, 2016 04:30am

She is lucky to grow up during the good old days.!

global citizen Feb 16, 2016 06:22am

what a strong message she is conveying to Pakistanis!

Wali Wake Feb 16, 2016 08:23am

@Wali Wake And in fact, she was part of BOTH the MIT and Caltech teams that started the whole LIGO project 2 decades ago.

Niaz H. Jafri Feb 16, 2016 10:18am

Kudos to Nergis ! I really am glad to read some motivational stuff quite after a long time. We need more stories like these in our newspaper pages please.

Niaz H. Jafri Feb 16, 2016 10:20am

@wellwisher I.A.

Kashif Masood Feb 16, 2016 11:56am

Pakistan must be Proud of this lady, who is shining the name of Pakistan.

JAVEED FAROOQI Feb 16, 2016 04:31pm

@ ATHEIST, there may be thousand scientists across the world working on the same topic but the members of the first group who has reported first direct detection of gravitational waves are David Shoemaker, Rainer Weiss, Matthew Evans, Erotokritos Katsavounidis, Nergis Mavalvala, and Peter Fritschel from MIT and none of these are Indian.

thoughtpurification. Feb 17, 2016 08:16am

@zia All what you states is secondary. Exploiting the genetic endowment is the rout to success . Society should respect the individual effort and not place obstacle in their intellectual pursuit .

thoughtpurification. Feb 17, 2016 08:21am

@Amer Mahi Malala is trying to do her best, support her because she can contribute more than Nargis

thoughtpurification. Feb 17, 2016 08:27am

@atheist Congratulations

Momina Feb 17, 2016 08:52am

I was better off not knowing so much about her.

umerm10 Feb 18, 2016 06:37pm

Great read ! And as the saying goes,"Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized, educated nation" -Napolean

umerm10 Feb 18, 2016 06:43pm

Inspiring work ! Good read, and as the saying goes "Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized, educated nation" - Napoleon Bonaparte