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Nergis Mavalvala, Pakistan’s unexpected celebrity scientist

Updated Feb 15, 2016 02:00pm
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