Nergis Mavalvala PhD ’97 becomes Dean of Science

Mavalvala is the first woman and LGBTQ+ dean of science at MIT

Professor of Astrophysics and Associate Head of the Department of Physics Nergis Mavalvala PhD ’97 will become Dean of MIT’s School of Science Sept. 1.

Mavalvala is the first woman to serve as the Dean of Science. She was recognized as LGBTQ+ scientist of the year by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals in 2014. Mavalvala discussed her personal and professional experiences, as well as her hopes for her new role, in an interview with The Tech.

Mavalvala shared her three main priorities for the School of Science: to push forward MIT’s scientific research and interdisciplinary collaboration, promote diversity and inclusion in science, and improve career development pathways for the school’s staff. 

“The single most important thing I’ve been entrusted to do and I wish to do is to maintain the high quality of scientific research and education” at MIT, Mavalvala said, noting the importance of “always hav[ing] our eyes open for new opportunities and directions to go in science.” 

In particular, she is interested in promoting cross-disciplinary research and opportunities and bringing together people from different fields. “Every department in the school is fantastic,” she said, explaining that encouraging these intersections can allow them to “build something new and dramatic that each of them alone couldn’t do.”

Mavalvala also hopes to encourage the School of Science to “start paying attention to the other parts of ourselves, as scientists.” She emphasized the importance of answering questions of “Who does science? Who has access to doing science? Who’s kept out of it?” to encourage inclusivity and “create a culture of welcome for everyone.” 

She said, “We want the very best talent in science and that talent comes in every shape and color and orientation. Therefore, we should be striving to make science something that everybody has the opportunity to do if they would like to.”

Finally, Mavalvala intends to focus more on career development opportunities for the school’s staff, “who make everything possible.” Unlike students and professors, she said, who generally have a relatively direct path to follow, the staff don’t always have a clear career trajectory. Mavalvala emphasized the importance of “think[ing] about everyone at MIT” and helping students, faculty, and staff “get to where they want to go.”

Mavalvala said that the challenge of funding science has been at the forefront of her and her predecessor Michael Sipser’s agendas. Two aspects of funding need consideration: the funding of scientific research and institutions, and funding for individual students.

First, “the funding of scientific research has already been shifting in this country and worldwide” in relation to the amount of federal or private funding provided, where it comes from, and what it goes toward.

Second, Mavalvala said that “as the funding model evolves, the way that we pay for things at MIT will have to evolve.” In particular, because graduate students are often funded through the grant of one particular faculty member, this creates a “very exclusive relationship” between student and professor. While this relationship can be “strong and supportive,” Mavalvala has concerns about the faculty member’s ability to control the student’s “career, funding, etc.” should the relationship become strained, and is thinking about alternatives to the current funding model.

Mavalvala acknowledged the uncertainty regarding the “post-COVID world,” but said that “we at MIT should be not just responding to these shifts” but proactively “creating the world we want to see.”

“I’ve always had a sort of sense of responsibility to do more than just what’s needed to forward my own agenda,” Mavalvala said, adding that there “are many issues here at MIT and outside of MIT too that really need tackling and I feel like if these things bother us then we should stop complaining and do something about it.” She said that she is driven to continue addressing these problems because she “really loves” the people she works with. “Every problem is worth solving if you’re solving it with the people you like working with.”

Mavalvala advises the “many, many students” she has met “who worry that they don’t belong at MIT or it was just pure luck,” to remember “that you do belong, you do have the talent, the road is not always smooth, but it’s a journey worth walking.”

She also advises students to find their mentors. “There are people who are rooting for you and all you have to do is make the connection,” she said. When asking for advice, “the very worst that could happen is the person would say ‘no.’ And almost no one ever does that. I think all of us who have come through the system being carried by the generation before us appreciate that this was part of our journey and we want to give back, and so students should find their mentors, find their champions, and really engage with them.”

Mavalvala remains optimistic about the future of the School of Science and MIT in general. “MIT has changed a lot in the time that I’ve known it, most of those changes very much for the better,” she said. “It’s more diverse in terms of interests, in terms of gender, in terms of race, and… I think if we continue this trajectory it’s going to continue to be a better and better place.”