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Helping scientists succeed

A conversation with new School of Science dean Nergis Mavalvala, PhD ’97
nergis mavalvalanergis mavalvala
Bryce Vickmark

In September, Nergis Mavalvala, PhD ’97, became the first woman to serve as dean of MIT’s School of Science, succeeding Donner Professor of Mathematics Michael Sipser.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Mavalvala first got to know MIT during her undergraduate years at nearby Wellesley College. After earning her PhD at the Institute in 1997, she joined the faculty in 2002. She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which made headlines in 2016 by detecting ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by black holes colliding. The project earned a Nobel Prize for Mavalvala’s mentor, Rainer Weiss ’55, PhD ’62, and Mavalvala won a MacArthur fellowship, among other awards, for her part in the research.

As associate head of the Department of Physics for the past five years, she oversaw academic programming and student well-being, and she cofounded the Physics Values Committee to guide the department on such issues as respect and inclusion. “There’s this idea at places like MIT that to be as excellent as we are in science and education, that has to come at the cost of all other aspects of being human. I reject that idea,” she told the MIT News Office when her appointment as dean was announced.

The MIT Alumni Association spoke with Mavalvala this fall as she settled into the role. 

How did your experiences as an MIT student and faculty member prepare you to be dean?

When I was a graduate student, I had my research group and my fellow squash players. Those were my two worlds; I didn’t interact with the rest of MIT much. I think a lot of graduate students experience this isolation after they finish their classes. When I joined the faculty, it was very important to me that students in my group feel connected to the whole MIT community, and as dean, I know part of the job ahead in improving the graduate student experience is creating those opportunities for connection.

Also, as a faculty member, I started to coexist in two different research worlds. The main focus of my career has been the detection of gravitational waves. But as I was thinking about new technologies that could help us develop more sensitive gravitational detectors, I found myself in a growing field called quantum opto­mechanics. I had to learn how to avoid jargon to get my ideas across between fields that speak quite different languages. This improved my teaching and helped prepare me for being dean.

Is there a place on campus you loved to spend time as a student?

Building 20—which, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. It was built on the site of what is now the Stata Center during the Second World War, when MIT was involved in the invention of radar, and later it housed various programs, including our lab. It was one of these spaces where you could do anything you wanted and get away with it. We could drill holes in the wall, run wires between different wings of the building. My fondest moments as a student were in that ramshackle but storied building. 

Rumor has it that when you first heard about Rai Weiss’s plan for LIGO, you thought it was crazy. How do you think now about “crazy” science?

When Rai first told me about gravitational waves, that was not such a big leap. But when he told me about the experiment—that to detect these waves, we have to measure the motion of mirrors that are four kilometers apart with the precision of a thousandth the size of a proton—I thought he was insane. [Laughs.] That was the real leap of faith: trying to pull it off technologically. I have to say, over the years, that has been one of the most rewarding things. The gravitational wave detections came 25 years into my working on them, but along the way, there were all these new technologies. Initially, we didn’t know how to measure the angles of mirrors. Now we do. We didn’t know how to make a laser that was quiet enough to make this measurement. Then we did it. Those milestones kept us going.

When I joined Rai’s group in 1990, a large number of people in the scientific community thought LIGO would never work. I loved being in the gang of mavericks, because it lets you be innovative and creative without the constraints of conformity. You could try things, and you didn’t have to worry that people would think you were crazy because they already thought you were crazy.

One thing that’s special about being dean is being in the position to enable other people’s successes on an even larger scale than I was able to do as a faculty member. And I learned from Rai that letting people know you’re behind them is a very important part of helping others succeed. He really believed in the science and the people he was working with, so we believed we could do it too.

This is a time in our society when the role of fundamental science and inquiry has really come to the fore in our response to covid-19.

Could you talk more about what you’re hoping to achieve as dean of the School of Science?

I’ve inherited one of the top schools of science in the world. So a singularly important priority for me has to be to not screw that up, right? 

This is a time in our society when the role of fundamental science and inquiry has really come to the fore in our response to covid-19. I think about the amazing things that are happening all across MIT in responding to the covid crisis, and the interaction between science and engineering in developing not just the fundamental ideas behind solutions but also the logistics of delivering them. I think when this is over, there will be books written on the coordination efforts across MIT that changed the outcome of the pandemic.  

We administrators and leaders have also been given a gift: the demand for change on racial and social justice issues, on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Near-term, we can examine our practices and policies for hiring and making sure that every person we bring into our community can thrive. Long-term, we also have to build pipelines, to make sure that from a young age, opportunity is distributed to everyone who wishes to take it, both by building up the infrastructure of support and by looking outside MIT at the society at large. A tremendous amount of work lies ahead, but I call it a gift because at no other time have I felt so palpably that we must do it and that we will get it done.

Those are the priorities for me: to maintain the highest level of science, and to bring in the most talented and most diverse people we can to do that science. 

What do you think the role of alumni should be at MIT and in the School of Science?

One of the important things that I would like to do as dean is to continue to engage alumni. Without our students, we’re nothing, and those students become alumni. Part of our job as faculty and deans is to honor that continuum. Even though they’ve left our campus, alumni are still part of our community. They want it to be the best that it can be. They also have the wisdom that comes from having been away for a while. 

When there are difficult decisions to be made, alumni can be a tremendous resource if we ask how things were for them. If a certain policy we’re thinking through had been implemented when they were here, what could their experience have been? The alumni also help us by being mentors to our students; it’s really important for students to see the different paths alumni took to get where they are. And there are many alumni who are very generous and help us fund our programs. But it also goes the other way, in that the Institute in turn offers them the knowledge and wisdom that’s created here, and the connection to MIT can help our alumni find the best people to work with. I think of this as a very symbiotic relationship.