Nergis Mavalvala, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, can check off a whole lot of boxes on the diversity form. She isn't just a woman in physics, which is rare enough. She is an immigrant from Pakistan and a self-described “out, queer person of color.” “I don’t mind being on the fringes of any social group,” she says. With a toothy grin, the gregarious mother of a 4-year-old child explains why she likes her outsider status: “You are less constrained by the rules.” She may still be an outsider, but she's no longer obscure; her 2010 MacArthur Fellowship saw to that. In addition to the cash and the honor, the award came with opportunities to speak to an interested public about her somewhat esoteric research. “That is the best part,” she says.
Mavalvala and her collaborators are fashioning an ultrasensitive telescope designed to catch a glimpse of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these ripples in spacetime nearly a century ago, but they haven’t been observed directly yet. Theoretically a consequence of violent cosmic events—the collisions of black holes, the explosive deaths of stars, or even the big bang—gravitational waves could provide a brand new lens for studying the universe. When she became a MacArthur fellow, former female students wrote to her saying that she was a model for what was possible for women. At different points in her scientific career, lesbian and gay students and colleagues mentioned something similar: They had been inspired by the example she had set for them. She embraces her role as role model. Something important is happening, she believes. “I am just myself,” she says. “But out of that comes something positive.” By being just herself, she is a source of inspiration for a wide range of individuals from groups underrepresented in the physical sciences.