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MIT Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala Wins MacArthur Grant

MIT quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala was announced Sept. 28 as one of 23 winners of the coveted 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a genius grant, and will receive a $500,000 “no strings attached” award over the next five years.

By Sunita Sohrabji / India West

nergis_mavalwala “I had always known of the MacArthur fellowship and all the wonderful scientists, historians and artists who had won it in the past, but I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought that I would be one of them,” Mavalvala, the first-known Parsi to receive the award, told India-West.

“I am incredibly humbled and so grateful to my colleagues and everyone who has supported my work,” she said from her office at MIT on the afternoon the winners were announced.

When she received the call 10 days ago from MacArthur Fellows Program director Daniel Socolow, Mavalvala was sure it was a hoax. It wasn’t until she woke up Sept. 28 to 200 congratulatory e-mails, that she realized she had actually won.

Mavalvala, who was born and raised in Karachi, studies gravitational waves, which can penetrate regions of space which light or electromagnetic waves cannot. Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916.

“Everything we know about the universe comes from observing light,” said Mavalvala, adding that gravitational waves are a different kind of tool that allow researchers to learn “new and enormously interesting things.”

Black holes, for example, are very dense, massive stars that light cannot escape from, said Mavalvala. But by using gravitational waves, researchers can explore the environment close to black holes, she explained.

The 42-year-old Mavalvala told India-West she is uncertain yet how she will use her half-million dollar grant. “The thing that very much excites me about this grant is that it can be used for speculative, risky, flat-out crazy ideas that would otherwise be hard to get funding for.” She declined to elaborate on those ideas, jokingly saying she wasn’t prepared for colleagues to hear them yet.

Mavalvala attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary high school in Karachi, where she was inspired by her physics and chemistry teachers.

“Advanced biology meant dissecting an animal, and I knew I couldn’t do that, so I quickly moved to the physical sciences,” said Mavalwala with a laugh.

The daughter of Minoo and Meher Mavalvala (who now live in Vancouver, B.C.), Nergis lives in Arlington, Mass., with her partner Aida Khan and two-year-old son, Evren. She credits her parents for recognizing her ability in math and science early on, and always encouraging her work. An older sister, Mahrukh, who also studied physics, is now an actuary living in Seattle, Wash.

Mavalvala joined the physics faculty at MIT in January 2002. Before that, she was a postdoctoral associate and then a research scientist at Caltech, working on the Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory, known as LIGO.

Mavalvala received her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997, and a bachelors’ degree in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College in 1990.

The MacArthur Fellowship program, started in 1981, each year awards grants to 20 to 30 fellows, to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. Grants are made to individuals, not institutions, and there is no application process.

The 2010 fellows include a stone carver, a quantum astrophysicist, a jazz pianist, a high school physics teacher, a marine biologist, a theater director, an American historian, a fiction writer, an economist, and a computer security scientist.

“This group of fellows, along with the more than 800 who have come before, reflects the tremendous breadth of creativity among us,” said MacArthur president Robert Gallucci, in a press statement announcing the awards.

“They are explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways. They provide us all with inspiration and hope for the future,” he said.