Announcing the new Dean of Science

August 17, 2020

To the members of the MIT community,

I am very pleased to share the news that Nergis Mavalvala, PhD ’97, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and the Associate Head of the Department of Physics, will become the next Dean of the School of Science, beginning September 1, 2020.

She will succeed Michael Sipser, who last February expressed his intention to step down this year, having served as dean since 2014.

Nergis brings to the deanship an outstanding combination of qualities and experiences: Her exceptional creativity and achievements as a scientist, recognized in countless ways, including a 2010 MacArthur award and her 2017 election to the National Academy of Sciences. Decades of experience helping to lead and manage LIGO, one of the largest, most complex and most consequential scientific endeavors of our time. A gift for collaboration, mentorship and hands-on problem solving. And the ability to see MIT from the vantage point of all the roles she has held here – as a graduate student, a faculty member and an administrative leader.

Nergis was born and grew up in Pakistan, where the educational system tracked her very early into science and math. A first-generation college student, she deliberately chose Wellesley, so she could broaden her STEM-centered background with the perspective of the liberal arts. She notes now that without the financial aid she received as an undergraduate, the rest of her career would have been out of reach.

After college, Nergis proceeded directly to a doctoral program in physics at MIT, where she first began working with Professor Rai Weiss ’55, PhD ’62; their long collaboration would ultimately play a crucial role in LIGO’s historic 2016 discovery, the first direct detection of gravitational waves, a century after Einstein predicted their existence. After a five-year stint at CalTech as a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist, where she continued to work on the LIGO effort, Nergis returned to MIT in 2002 as member of the faculty.

Scientifically, Nergis built a novel bridge between two distinct fields: gravitational wave astrophysics and quantum measurement science. The gravitational waves that LIGO can now detect are ripples in the spacetime fabric caused by the motion of compact, massive astrophysical objects such as black holes and neutron stars. Since the nature of gravitation is inherently different from electromagnetism, gravitational wave astrophysics provided a radically different way of observing the universe: in effect, while traditional telescopes “see” astronomical phenomena, LIGO “hears” them.

In the quest for ever greater sensitivity in the LIGO detectors, Nergis has conducted pioneering experiments on the generation and application of squeezed states of light, and on laser cooling and trapping of macroscopic objects to enable observation of quantum phenomena in human-scale systems.

In 2015, she became Associate Department Head of Physics, taking on primary responsibility for all academic programming and student wellbeing. Among her many accomplishments, she developed initiatives to meet the department’s educational and advising objectives, revised graduate admissions procedures to increase equity and promote a more diverse student body, and championed the development of online versions of a number of core physics subjects, giving the department a head start in responding to the remote-learning era of Covid-19.

Nergis also was instrumental in founding the Physics Values Committee, which developed the first Physics Values Statement, now a model for other departments and units at MIT, as well as at other universities. The committee continues to work on improving the department’s culture and practices, to create a community where everyone feels welcome and valued.

I very much look forward to working with Nergis and to benefiting from her unerring sense of scientific opportunity, infectious curiosity, down-to-earth manner and practical wisdom. I hope you will join me in congratulating her as she brings her great gifts as a leader to this new role.

Finally, I would like to express my deep appreciation of Mike Sipser’s leadership and overall service to the Institute over the last six years. I would also like to thank the Provost’s Advisory Committee (named below), chaired by Kerry Emanuel, for their outstanding efforts in advising me on the selection of the best individual to lead the school.

Sincerely,

Martin A. Schmidt, Provost


Advisory Committee members

Moungi Bawendi (Chemistry)

Tanja Bosak (EAPS)

Emery Brown (BCS / IMES)

Alan Edelman (Mathematics)

Kerry Emanuel (EAPS), chair

Anna Frebel (Physics)

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero (Physics)

Amy Keating (Biology)

Laura Kiessling (Chemistry)

Peter Reddien (Biology)

Rebecca Saxe (BCS)

Gigliola Staffilani (Mathematics)