Karachi bike repairman inspired Mavalvala

Published: February 16, 2016
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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Reader Comments (13)

  • yasir khawaja
    Feb 16, 2016 - 8:55AM

    Excellent Work Nargis!
    Whole nation is proud of you. Recommend

  • Sodomite
    Feb 16, 2016 - 9:19AM

    Great feelings for the family and the nation that feels proud of their daughter. I wish all families should copy Nergis habits when growing up so that their own children grow up to be like her. Recommend

  • shayan
    Feb 16, 2016 - 9:30AM

    believe me… all tht matters in pakistan is that she is living with a partnerRecommend

  • Zafar Ihsan
    Feb 16, 2016 - 10:53AM

    Congratulations for being part of the team that made this great discovery. Einstein must be laughing at being proven correct. There are so many brainy Pakistanis who are doing amazing work abroad. But our schooling system only sticks to recognizing three fields; medical, engineering, commerce. Nobody is going to revise this as those in charge barely scrapped through graduation and cant think beyond their self interest. Recommend

  • Saleem
    Feb 16, 2016 - 10:56AM

    @Shayan , you getting 1 like ( probably by yourself ) and @yasir getting 5 when I am reading the comments itself shows how wrong you are ! So instead of making everyone ‘believe you’ better get off your judgmental glasses and realize that Pakistan diaspora has minority of ultra-orthodox minded people like yourself.Recommend

  • Rao Amjad Ali
    Feb 16, 2016 - 11:39AM

    An amazing feat, indeed! May you go on to conquer many more scientific frontiers. Recommend

  • Antiq
    Feb 16, 2016 - 3:01PM

    We’re really really proud to have you mam. May more of our daughters join in your footsteps. Recommend

  • NHA
    Feb 16, 2016 - 7:40PM

    Well done Nargis. Pak is proud of you. God bless what you do and keep doing and making us proud of your feats.

    This great country has produced the likes of Dr Abd-u-Salam and numerous scientists and technologists who built Pak’s nuclear capability, its JF-17 series fighter jets, Cruise and ballistic misles , nuclear energy plants, and many more state of the art things.

    We thank God for blessing us with sons and daughters of this calibre. Recommend

  • Aviator
    Feb 17, 2016 - 5:26AM

    Well done Nargis, you have made Pakistan and indeed the whole world proud!Recommend

  • Obelix
    Feb 17, 2016 - 6:06AM

    A lot of scientists ride bikes and they need repairing too. Good job by Mavalvala!Recommend

  • Imagin8r
    Feb 18, 2016 - 7:29PM

    Kudos for the awesome accomplishment! The article should have also mentioned that she lives with a “female” partner and not just a partner. Our society needs to be exposed to the fact that the LGBT community is a valuable part of our it and that they can be good parents to their children. Recommend

  • May 22, 2016 - 7:03PM

    very impressiveRecommend

  • Jun 2, 2016 - 4:49PM

    Good efforts and I hope you get more success.
    But you make solid inventor for Pakistan loadshadingRecommend

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