Spacetime ripples, full of secrets MacArthur winner studies gravity’s waves

When she was contacted by the MacArthur Foundation, Professor Nergis Mavalvala PhD ’97 couldn’t believe it. “I really thought it was a prank call,” said Mavalvala. “I expected at any moment one of my friends was going to jump in on the other side of the line.”

Mavalvala of the Physics Department is the latest of 35 MIT alumni, faculty, and staff that have been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Award.

MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to U.S. citizens and residents who have shown exceptional creative promise in their field. They are nominated anonymously by experts invited specifically by the MacArthur Foundation. This year, twenty-three fellowships were awarded to individuals in fields ranging from quantum astrophysics, Mavalvala’s field, to fiction writing, population genetics, and music.

Mavalvala started her career at Wellesley College as an undergraduate majoring in Physics and Astronomy. Having completed her PhD at MIT in 1997, she spent time doing postdoctoral research at CalTech before returning to be a part of the MIT faculty in 2002.

The bulk of her research throughout her career has been devoted to the detection of gravitational waves as a new tool for astrophysics. In the past, astronomers have relied on analyzing properties of light coming from distant celestial objects to learn more about the universe. Now, with the advent of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), researchers like Mavalvala can analyze the nature of the gravitational waves given off by these objects and look at the data from a whole different perspective.

“Once we start detecting the gravitational radiation, it really allows us to look at the universe with a completely different messenger,” Mavalvala said. “We can find many things that, once we start making detections and using astrophysics, we’ll be able to learn so much more things about nature and understand it so much better.”

Besides the coveted public recognition, the MacArthur Fellowship provides an unrestricted stipend of $500,000, awarded in quarterly installments over five years,

“Funding like this has a very special place in research,” Mavalvala said. “It allows us to try out risky ideas that agencies might not be willing to fund.” She believes the payout of these risks could potentially be huge. However, although Mavalvala has some ideas on what to do with the fellowship money, she still does not have any precise plans.

“I have not in any way developed specifics,” Mavalvala said.