Professor Nergis Mavalvala joined the Physics faculty at MIT in January 2002. Before that, she was a postdoctoral associate and then a research scientist at Caltech, working on the Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). She has been involved with LIGO since her early years in graduate school at MIT and her primary research has been in instrument development for interferometric gravitational-wave detectors. Professor Mavalvala received a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT in 1997, and a B.A. in Physics and Astronomy from Wellesley College in 1990.
Professor Mavalvala’s research focuses on interferometric Gravitational Waves and Quantum Measurement. The major U.S. effort in this field is LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), scheduled to come on the air in 2002. The gravitational waves that LIGO and its international counterparts expect to detect are ripples in the spacetime fabric caused by the motion of compact, massive astrophysical objects. Since the nature of gravitation is inherently different from electromagnetism, gravitational wave astrophysics has the potential of providing a radically different view of the universe, including direct observation of massive dark matter, large-scale nuclear matter and a test of strong-field gravitation.
The greatest challenge facing current detectors is achieving a sensitivity that is commensurate with the signal strengths expected from typical sources, such as coalescing neutron star binaries. In its first incarnation, LIGO is expected to reach a strain sensitivity of 10-21 at 100 Hz. Difficulties in estimating gravitational wave strain from astrophysical objects based on observations made using the electromagnetic spectrum further highlight the need for improved sensitivity in the near future.
Consequently, even as the initial LIGO detectors begin operation, research and development for second-generation detectors is underway. Advanced LIGO detectors may be installed as early as 2006. In addition, a space-based gravitational- wave interferometer-the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) – is planned for launch in 2011. All of these developments present unique and diverse opportunities in this young field. Professor Mavalvala’s research activities, in collaboration with the LIGO group at MIT, will include instrument development, precision measurements at fundamental quantum limits, and data analysis.