Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala in Silicon Valley

Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, MIT professor and member of Nobel Prize winner LIGO team, visited Pakistani-American Community Center (PACC) in Silicon Valley on February 24, 2018. She was invited by PACC founder Mr. Mohammad Asghar Aboobaker to talk about her inspirational work and meet with the community members, particularly Pakistani-American children in the Valley.

Riaz Haq (R) with Dr. Nergis Mavalvala
Who is Nergis?

Nergis was born in Lahore and raised in Karachi before coming to the United States in 1986. She completed her Ph.D. in Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1997. She did her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss that included developing a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. Currently, she is Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is also the Associate Head of the Department of Physics.

Gravitational Waves: 

In her brief presentation attended by over 100 people including boys and girls, Nergis explained Albert Einstein's gravitational wave theory and described her work in confirming the theory by detecting gravitational waves in Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project.

LIGO - A Gigantic Interferometer

Gravitational waves are the disturbances in the fabric ("curvature") of spacetime generated by accelerated stars and propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. She compared the gravitational waves with the curvature and the ripples produced in a trampoline when a heavy ball is placed in the middle and bounced on it.

All Stars Die:

Nergis explained that all stars, like the sun in our solar system, are born, grow and eventually die. Our sun too will die but she assured her audience that it won't happen for over a billion years. She described black holes as big stars whose light can not escape due to their massive gravity.  Huge amounts of energy are released when these massive stars collide with each other and new ones are born.

Dr. Mavalvala at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker
Neutron stars are created when giant stars die in supernovas and their cores collapse, with the protons and electrons essentially melting into each other to form neutrons.  Given the extremely small waves of about 1000 times smaller than a proton, the equipment required for detecting them must be extremely sensitive to tiny disturbances. LIGO equipment uses giant shock absorbers to eliminate extraneous perturbations that can alter the result.

Detected gravitational waves help scientists understand how large and how far away the colliding stars are, and allow them to recreate the moments before they collided. After such collisions, the measurements of optical light and electromagnetic waves fill in the blanks that gravitational waves can’t answer.

Dr. Mavalvala at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker

Origins of Gold: 

In answer to my question about the events detected by LIGO team, Nergis said the gravitational waves generated by these neutron star collisions occurred over a billion years ago at a distance of a billion light years.  From optical light and electromagnetic measurements after these collisions, the scientists were able to conclude that the resulting explosion from a neutron star merger produces heavy elements like gold, platinum, and uranium. These collisions occurred well after the Big Bang that is believed to have happened about 13.7 billion years ago.  Detecting events that occurred closer to the Big Bang would take much more sensitive equipment than currently available to LIGO team.

Audience at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker


Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, MIT professor and member of Nobel Prize winner LIGO team, visited Pakistani-American Community Center (PACC) in Silicon Valley on February 24, 2018. She was invited by PACC founder Mr. Mohammad Asghar Aboobaker to talk about her work and meet with the community members. Mavalvala and her fellow team members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project have opened new vistas in human pursuit to solve the mysteries of our universe. The collision of stars they have detected occurred over a billion years ago. With their new equipment they hope to go back further closer to the Big Bang to learn more about the creation of our universe.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Why Do Stars Have Arabic Names?

Pakistani Scientists at CERN, Switzerland

12-Year-Old Pakistani Girl at World Economic Forum

Pakistani Woman Leads Gender Parity Program at World Economic Forum

Pakistani Students Win at International Genetic Engineering Competition

Pakistani Students Win First Place in Stanford Design Contest

Pakistan Beats BRICs in Highly Cited Research Papers

Pakistanis Make Up Silicon Valley's Largest Foreign-Born Muslim Group

Silicon Valley Pakistani-Americans

Pakistani-American Leads Silicon Valley's Top Incubator

Silicon Valley Pakistanis Enabling 2nd Machine Revolution

Karachi-born Triple Oscar Winning Graphics Artist

Pakistani-American Ashar Aziz's Fire-eye Goes Public

Two Pakistani-American Silicon Valley Techs Among Top 5 VC Deals

Pakistani-American's Game-Changing Vision 


Shazad Shaikh said…
It was incredible hearing her. She came to talk about gravitational waves and the birth of heavy metals in space.

Normally we think of space as empty or nearly empty. When a star explodes the ejecta goes on to form metals and over time heavier and heavier metals like uranium, gold ,etc. As she explained these elements are mined on Earth but are created by the explosion of a star.

Incredibly satisfying to listen to her. She knew her subject cold
Riaz Haq said…
Dr. Frank Postberg and #Pakistani scientist Dr. Nozair Khawaja of #Heidelberg University in #Germany have identified fragments of large organic molecules in ice grains ejected from geysers in #Saturn's moon #Enceladus' icy exterior. #Pakistan

It hasn’t even been a couple of days since the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the detection of complex organic material originating from a moon orbiting Saturn that can probably sustain some life form. And understandably, the euphoria and excitement of this discovery has been felt across the world, in scientific communities and among ordinary citizens.

But little is known about the Pakistani man who, along with Prof Dr Frank Postberg, has co-led a team of world-class scientists that published this groundbreaking research in the prestigious science journal, Nature.

Meet Dr Nozair Khawaja. Hailing from a small rural area of Wazirabad, Khawaja belonged to a middle-class family. He left home first to complete his Master’s degree in Space Science from the Punjab University, before heading to the Heidelberg University, Germany, to pursue a doctoral degree. And it was in Germany that he immersed himself in planetary research and began working on NASA’s space mission “Cassini towards Saturn.”

Eos presents the first interview Dr Khawaja has granted to any Pakistani publication.

Eos meets the young man from the small town of Wazirabad whose groundbreaking research into one of Saturn’s moons has been published in the prestigious science journal Nature on June 28

Dr Khawaja, the world is fascinated by your new discovery but what makes it most exciting for you?

Well, to me, everything is very exciting, but for public interest, I would like to summarise. We found large and complex organic molecules from Enceladus. Previously, the mass spectrometers (CDA & INMS) onboard the Cassini spacecraft found small organic compounds coming out from Enceladus’ subsurface ocean. But this discovery is the very first detection of very large and complex organics coming from the extraterrestrial ocean world.

So, can Enceladus be colonised for the survival of human civilisation in future?

Space colonisation or space settlement should be understood as permanent human habitation on any other planet. And since Enceladus is very far from the Sun and the surface temperature at Enceladus is extremely cold, approximately -200 °C, which means that human colonisation of Enceladus is not possible.

The large and complex organic molecules that we found could have been contributed by non-living or living sources. We cannot say for sure that the origin of these molecules is living organisms, nor can we say that that life exists on Enceladus. Instead, we proposed that these molecules originated from hydrothermal vents inside Enceladus. Such a hydrothermal system also exists in the Earth’s ocean where microbial life exists. Therefore, the origins of these molecules are undecided but they have astro-biological potential.
Riaz Haq said…
A peek into the life and work of Pakistani astrophysicist at NASA, Mansoor Ahmed
"I believe the effort to instil within students love for science needs to start at the early stages of education."

Saadeqa KhanUpdated Jan 17, 2018 12:41pm
Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the alluring night sky, the glittering moon and countless stars over the horizon. All throughout my childhood, space sciences and astronomy remained my passion.

While researching personalities from all around the world in those fields, I always wondered why despite the fact there is no dearth of talent in the country, I was unable to find any instance of Pakistanis working for the National Air and Space Administration (NASA).

I got in touch with Dr Mohsin Siddique, director of the theoretical physics department at the National Center for Physics, Islamabad.

Through him I had the privilege of connecting with Mr Mansoor Ahmed, a Pakistani astrophysicist, who has been associated with NASA for almost 35 years and is currently serving as the associate director of the Astrophysics Projects Division, as well as the programme manager for the Physics of the Cosmos programme and the Cosmic Origins programme at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland.

Mr Ahmed has spent most of his career working at the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) programme in different capacities, including as flight operations manager and the project manager for HST operations.

He was the deputy project manager of the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) and the project manager of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, a collaborative endeavour between NASA and the European Space Agency.

Here, I ask the impressive gentleman his success story, from his childhood in Peshawar to his work with NASA.

You were born and grew up in Peshawar. Can you tell us your family background? Do you recall any interesting story from your childhood/teenage years?

My father was a Subedar-major in the army. We lived in Peshawar, near Fort Bala Hissar.

For the first five years of my education, I went to a Christian mission school and from sixth grade onwards, I attended the Government Higher Secondary School.

Our house was across the street from Naaz cinema, the only cinema in the city that played English-language films. This is where I got my first exposure to films.

My father took me to see The Vikings and I was hooked from then on, even though, I didn’t really understand any English at that time.

My answer to the question 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' was: 'I want to become the ticket collector at Naaz cinema so that I can see every film playing there.'

One day, I was visiting some relatives who lived right next to the Pakistan Air Force base in Peshawar and I witnessed an F-86 land on the runway. As the plane taxied, I could see the cockpit and the pilot.

The pilot waved at me as he passed by and right then my career goals changed. I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

At Government High School, a close friend of mine, Ayub, told me about the Air Force cadet academy in Lower Topa, a tiny town near Murree.

It consists of a boarding school that selects 60 children each year as pre-cadets, to prepare them to enter the air force flying academy after FSc. Ayub said he was applying and encouraged me to the same.

Fortunately, both of us got selected and we entered Lower Topa in May of 1966, at the age of 13.

In Pakistan it is not common for parents to support their kids to pursue astronomy as a profession. Can you tell us how much encouragement you received from your family during the early years of your career? Would you encourage your own child if they were to prefer the same profession?

I think there are two aspects to this question. Parents are concerned about the livelihood of their children when they grow up.

They are concerned whether their children will be able to earn a living and support a family. So, their tendency is to push their kids towards careers that are known to provide a good living.
Riaz Haq said…
Nergis Mavalvala named School of Science dean
Astrophysicist and associate head of the physics department will succeed Michael Sipser.

Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office
August 17, 2020

Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science, effective Sept. 1. She will succeed Michael Sipser, who will return to the faculty as the Donner Professor of Mathematics, after six years of service.

Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, is renowned for her pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, which she conducted as a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. She has received numerous awards and honors for her research and teaching, and since 2015 has been the associate head of the Department of Physics. Mavalvala will be the first woman to serve as dean in the School of Science.

“Nergis’s brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “What excites me equally about her appointment as dean are the qualities I have seen in her as a leader: She is a deft, collaborative problem-solver, a wise and generous colleague, an incomparable mentor, and a champion for inclusive excellence. As we prepare for the start of this most unusual academic year, it gives me great comfort to know that the School of Science will remain in such capable hands.”

Provost Martin Schmidt announced the news today in a letter emailed to the MIT community, writing, “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.”

As with most everything she takes on, Mavalvala is energized and optimistic about the role ahead, even as she acknowledges the unprecedented challenges that the school, and the Institute as a whole, are facing in these shifting times.

“We’re in this moment where enormous changes are afoot,” Mavalvala says. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and economic challenge, and we’re also in a moment, at least in U.S. history, where the imperative for racial and social justice is really strong. As someone in a leadership position, that means you have opportunities to make an important and hopefully lasting impact.”

Leading with heart and mind

For the past five years as associate head of physics, Mavalvala oversaw the department’s academic programming and student well-being. She implemented new, more flexible doctoral requirements and exams, and expanded the department’s digital learning portfolio with the development of online versions for a number of core subjects. She also introduced changes to the department’s undergraduate and graduate advising, and helped to set in motion an extensive mentoring program.

In collaboration with department head Peter Fisher, she co-founded the Physics Values Committee, a group of faculty, staff, and students who advise the department on issues of well-being, respect, inclusion, collaboration, and mentorship. The committee developed the department’s first values statement, which has become a model for departments and units across MIT, and at other universities.

Mavalvala launched initiatives to meet the department’s goals of education and advising, while aiming to reduce stress and workload on students, faculty, and staff. She also helped to revise the department’s graduate admissions procedures in order to increase equity and promote a more diverse student body.

Riaz Haq said…
Very excited that two
scientists are among the 2021 #LeibnizPreis recipients: our Vice President Asifa Akthar, MPI of Immunobiology & Epigenetics

& Volker Springel, MPI for Astrophysics. Congratulations!Partying faceGrinning face

Pakistan-born scientist to receive prestigious Leibniz Prize

Leibniz Prizes, most important research award in Germany for outstanding work from all scientific areas will be awarded on March 15 next year in a virtual ceremony.
The Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize has been awarded annually by the DFG since 1986.

Pakistan-born scientist Asifa Akhtar among 10 others will receive prestigious Leibniz Prizes next year, the committee announced on Thursday.

Leibniz Prizes, most important research award in Germany for outstanding work from all scientific areas will be awarded on March 15 next year in a virtual ceremony.

Asifa Akhtar is the vice president of The Max Planck Society. It is Germany’s most successful research organisation. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide.

Born in Karachi, she obtained her doctorate at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, UK, in 1997. She then moved to Germany, where she was a Postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and the Adolf-Butenandt-Institute in Munich from 1998 to 2001.


Pakistan-born scientist becomes first woman to head section at renowned body

Pakistan-born scientist ​​​​​​​​Asifa Akhtar has become the first international female vice president of the biology and medicine section at Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society.

The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organisation. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide.

Riaz Haq said…
Migration of academics: Economic development does not necessarily lead to brain drain

A team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, developed a database on international migration of academics in order to assess emigration patterns and trends for this key group of innovators. Their paper was published in PNAS on Jan. 18.

As a first step, the team produced a database that contains the number of academics who publish papers regularly, and migration flows and migration rates for all countries that include academics who published papers listed on the bibliographic database Scopus. The migration database was obtained by leveraging metadata of more than 36 million journal articles and reviews published from 1996 to 2021.

"This migration database is a major resource to advance our understanding of the migration of academics," says MPIDR Researcher Ebru Sanliturk. Data Scientist Maciej Danko adds: "While the underlying data are proprietary, our approach generates anonymized aggregate-level datasets that can be shared for noncommercial purposes and that we are making publicly available for scientific research."

MPIDR Researcher Aliakbar Akbaritabar explains how they processed the bibliographic data in order to receive information about the migration patterns of academics: "We used the metadata of the article title, name of the authors and affiliations of almost every article and review published in Scopus since 1996. We followed every single one of the roughly 17 million researchers listed in the bibliographic database through the years and noticed changes in affiliation and, by using that tactic we know how many academics left a given country every year."

The researchers' empirical analysis focused on the relationship between emigration and economic development, indicating that academic setting patterns may differ widely from population-level ones.

Previous literature has shown that, as low-income countries become richer, overall emigration rates initially rise. At a certain point the increase slows down and the trend reverses, with emigration rates declining.

This means that favoring economic development has the counterintuitive effect of initially increasing migration from low- and middle-income countries, rather than decreasing it.

Is this pattern also generally valid for migration of scientists?

Not really.

The researchers found that, when considering academics, the pattern is the opposite: in low- and middle-income countries, emigration rates decrease as the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases. Then, starting from around 25,000 US Dollars in GDP, the trend reverses and emigration propensity increases as countries get richer.

MPIDR Director Emilio Zagheni adds, "Academics are a crucial group of innovators whose work has relevant economic effects. We showed that their propensity to emigrate does not immediately increase with economic development—indeed it decreases until a high-income turning point and then increases. This implies that increasing economic development does not necessarily lead to an academic brain drain in low- and middle-income countries."

Unveiling these and related patterns, and addressing big scientific questions with societal implications, was possible only because of painstaking work in preparing this new global database of migration of academics. "We are putting the final touches on an even more comprehensive database, the Scholarly Migration Database, which will be released on its own website soon," says software developer Tom Theile.
Riaz Haq said…
Irfan Siddiqi Announced as Next Chair of Berkeley Physics | Physics

Berkeley Physics is pleased to announce Irfan Siddiqi as the next Chair of the Department, effective July 1, 2023.

Irfan joined the Berkeley Physics faculty as an Assistant Professor in 2006 and is currently a Professor of Physics, Professor of EECS, and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). He has been an active member of the faculty, serving as department summer chair from 2014-2018 and Vice Chair from Spring 2017-Summer 2018. In 2016 he received the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award, a prestigious honor for teaching and continued commitment to pedagogy. A trailblazer on the forefront of quantum physics, Irfan is Director of the Advanced Quantum Testbed, and was the founding director of the Quantum Systems Accelerator (QSA) at LBNL, which brings together dozens of scientists who are pioneers of many of today’s quantum capabilities.

Irfan is already hard at work assembling a strong faculty and staff leadership team to structure his vision for the department. We're certain that under Irfan’s leadership the Department will continue to thrive, and the Berkeley Physics community looks forward to working with him as he settles into his role as chair.

We cannot move forward without acknowledging the many successes of the outgoing Chair, James Analytis. During his 3 year term as Department Chair James served as an exceptional leader, navigating the challenges brought on by the pandemic and helping us stay connected at a time we were apart. Under James' leadership several wonderful new faculty members have joined the department, and the Pi2 Summer Scholar Program he leads has continued to grow, bringing valuable hands-on lab experience to our undergraduate students. James was responsible for creating a more equitable and inclusive community by collaborating with faculty, students, and staff to establish community principles in our department, and has spurred activity that will help generations of Berkeley physicists.

We thank James for his service to this department and welcome Irfan into his new role.

Popular posts from this blog

Pakistani Women's Growing Particpation in Workforce

Project Azm: Pakistan to Develop 5th Generation Fighter Plane

Pakistan's Saadia Zahidi Leads World Economic Forum's Gender Parity Effort