Astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala ’90 is Wellesley’s 2022 Commencement Speaker

Portrait of alum Nergis Mavalvala wearing a cap and smiling at the camera.
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
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Nergis Mavalvala ’90, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at MIT and the first woman to be the dean of the MIT School of Science, will address the Wellesley College class of 2022 at the College’s 144th commencement on May 27.

The 2022 class council is excited to welcome Mavalvala as the commencement speaker. When council members Sophie Wang ’22, co-president, and Wabil Asjad ’22, co-vice president, were first-years, Mavalvala spoke to their astronomy and physics classes during her visit to Wellesley to accept a 2018 Alumnae Achievement Award.

“I remember that she presented and discussed everything in a very accessible, friendly, and personable manner,” said Wang. “Just sitting in that class and hearing her speak was so inspiring, even though she is in a completely different industry and has different interests than I do.” Wang said having Mavalvala speak to her class once again gives her the feeling that her Wellesley experience has come full circle.

Mavalvala was born in Lahore and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She came to the United States to attend Wellesley in 1986, where she majored in physics and astronomy, then received her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997. She focused on astrophysics, working on the detection of gravitational waves and quantum measurement science.

“I never tire of saying that the single, perhaps most life-changing event in my life was that I was admitted to Wellesley with a financial aid package that enabled me to come here,” said Mavalvala when she received the Alumnae Achievement Award.

Mavalvala was a member of the scientific team that in 2016 announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), groundbreaking work that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Mavalvala’s many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a “genius grant”), a Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the 2014 LGBTQ Scientist of the Year award from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, the Gruber Prize in Cosmology as part of the LIGO team, the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, and the Carnegie Corporation’s Great Immigrant Award. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017.

Asjad, who is also Pakistani, feels that Mavalvala’s experience will resonate with the international students in the class of 2022 in particular. Asjad was in high school when she first heard about Mavalvala’s work on gravitational waves, and she looked her up to learn more when she found out Mavalvala was also Pakistani. “You don’t see a lot of women of color going as far as she [has],” said Asjad.

Julia Esposito ’22, secretary of the class council, is excited to hear Mavalvala refer to her work at graduation. “So often commencement speakers are authors, activists, or politicians,” said Esposito, a biological sciences and environmental studies double major. “I love that we have someone famous for her scientific research.”

Mavalvala joined the MIT faculty in 2002 and, in addition to her roles as a professor and dean, she served as the head of the physics department for five years. A proponent of STEM education and the power of mentoring, Mavalvala is also, in her words, an “out, queer person of color” who frequently discusses living at the intersection of her lesbian and immigrant identities. The class of 2022 sees her as a role model and an inspiration for any student who has wished to pursue a field in which they might not see themselves represented very often.

Oreoluwa Odeyinka ’22, co-president of the class council, said because Mavalvala represents such a wide range of experiences, the commencement guests will all connect with some part of her story. “Commencement is a family event,” said Odeyinka. “There will be people of all ages and all backgrounds there.”

Wellesley’s 2022 commencement ceremony will be held in person on Severance Green on Friday, May 27, at 10:30 a.m. EDT, and it will be livestreamed on the WellesleyLive website.