Friday, August 10, 2012

Nergis Mavalvala, Genius Lesbian MIT Physics Prof

Nervis Mavalvala is a tenured full professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 2010 she won the prestigious MacArthur "genius" Fellowship. She is also an out lesbian, a Pakistani immigrant and a mother of a young child as this profile at Science magazine makes clear:
Nergis Mavalvala, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, can check off a whole lot of boxes on the diversity form. She isn't just a woman in physics, which is rare enough. She is an immigrant from Pakistan and a self-described “out, queer person of color.” “I don’t mind being on the fringes of any social group,” she says.
With a toothy grin, the gregarious mother of a 4-year-old child explains why she likes her outsider status: “You are less constrained by the rules.” She may still be an outsider, but she's no longer obscure; her 2010 MacArthur Fellowship saw to that. In addition to the cash and the honor, the award came with opportunities to speak to an interested public about her somewhat esoteric research. “That is the best part,” she says.
The subject of her research involves the search to detect gravity waves as predicted by Einstein's theory of special relativity.
Her thesis work [at MIT] was incorporated in the design of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory(LIGO), which is run by MIT and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 1997, Mavalvala began a 3-year postdoc at Caltech. When the observatory went up in Washington state (there is also one in Louisiana), she stayed in the high-altitude desert in Hanford for days at a stretch to get the detector ready for data runs. In 2000, she joined the team as a staff scientist.
A decade into LIGO’s existence, no gravitational wave has been detected. But the Advanced LIGO (aLIGO), which should be functional within 3 years, is on the horizon. With aLIGO, researchers hope to detect waves from more-distant sources. “The farther out you can look, the more galaxies, and hence more gravitational wave sources, are visible to you,” Mavalvala says.
“Making the mirrors stay still,” she says, “is something we devote a lot of attention to.” Using lasers to study a tiny displacement means having to contend with the momentum of photons impinging the mirror. There is also jostling from the thermal energy of atoms in the mirror and the suspending wires. Five years ago, her group demonstrated a novel technique to optically trap and cool a coin-sized mirror, bringing it to within a degree of absolute zero (0.8 K).
Bet you didn't know there were at least two lesbian genius scientists currently in the United States, did you? Don't hesitate to let me know if you know of others.

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