Karachi bike repairman inspired Mavalvala

Published: February 16, 2016
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PHOTO COURTESY: John D & Catherine T, MacArthur Foundation

PHOTO COURTESY: John D & Catherine T, MacArthur Foundation

KARACHI: Now working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory(LIGO) in the United States, Dr Nergis Mavalvala still thanks a bicycle repairman in Karachi for her hands-on skills.

“One of my formative experiences in Karachi happened when, as a 10-year-old, I would take my bicycle to the bike repair shop right outside our apartment compound,” she recalls in an interview with The Express Tribune. “Rather than just repairing my bike for me, the man at the shop taught me how to do the repairs myself.”

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Once she learned the technique, she would just borrow the tools from the mechanic. Perhaps her formative experiences living on Karachi’s McNeil Road came in handy when she moved to the US as a teenager and went on to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

With a team of scientists, the Pakistan-born astrophysicist recently announced the confirmation of gravitational waves – a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity – opening an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

What next?

Nergis, who lives with her partner and a son in Boston, and works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), plans to continue working on improving the sensitivity of the LIGO detectors.

“We have ideas for that already and the future of the field is bright,” she says. “We have just heard the very first cosmic sounds. As our instruments improve, we expect to collect much more information about the universe and learn about things we didn’t even know existed.”

But how did she come to work on such a massive project? “I kind of stumbled upon it mostly by accident,” she recalls.

During her first year in the PhD program at MIT in Cambridge, Nergis was looking for a professor to work with. She joined the team after a brief conversation with Professor Rainer Weiss, who invented the concept behind LIGO.

Karachi rendezvous

Born in May 1968, Nergis went to the Convent of Jesus and Mary from pre-K through O-levels. “It’s funny to remember now but the teacher comments on my report cards were very much the same: smart kid, too talkative and hard to control,” she says.

In her entire journey from Karachi to LIGO, her family has always been supportive of her. They had prioritised Nergis’s and her sister’s education even when it was not easy for them.

“Education was an important value in our family,” she says. “While some family members don’t fully understand what I do, but they love what I do because I love what I do!”

Her fondest memories of Karachi are the people she grew up with – her friends at school, her family and the tight-knit Zoroastrian community – the incredible warmth and hospitality prevalent in the Pakistani culture and the food. “I miss those things to this day,” she says.

The astrophysicist is also surprised by the attention her role in the discovery has gotten in Pakistan. While she expected a lot of excitement worldwide about the discovery, she has been stunned by the amount of focus on her personally back home. “It has been a wonderful surprise,” she says.

Family’s reaction

Natasha Mavalvala, Nergis’s aunt from her extended family in Karachi, is also happy at the success achieved by her niece. “She was a bright and studious child and today she has made us all proud,” she told The Express Tribune.

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While it has been years since the family has met Nergis, she still holds a special place in their hearts. “Nergis was very young when she left Karachi but she has made us, her parents and the country proud,” Natasha adds.

Rustom Darrah, the only maternal uncle of Nergis, also remembers her as an intelligent and hardworking girl. “I last met her when she came to Karachi for my daughter’s wedding about six years ago,” he says. “I knew this girl will do something big in life.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2016.

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