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Nergis Mavalvala '90's Commencement Address

Nergis Mavalvala ’90 delivered Wellesley’s 2022 commencement address

Good morning, President Johnson, trustees, faculty, staff, many of you dear friends and mentors.

Good morning, guests of honor: graduates.

And good morning, parents, friends, and families gathered here to honor the Wellesley class of 2022.

It is a tremendous pleasure and honor to stand before you today, to be part of the celebration of your graduation from Wellesley, my beloved alma mater, and now yours.

As a proud alumna, I always say that Wellesley has given me so much. When I was a student here, lurking about the Science Center at all hours, cooking with friends at Slater House, playing squash ferociously, I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that I would one day be your commencement speaker. It is a great honor to be here. Thank you.

Graduates, congratulations, you’ve done it.

Families, congratulations and thank you, you’ve paid for it.

Faculty and staff, congratulations and thank you, you’ve walked the journey with one more class.

Standing here, I am reminded of my own graduation

from Wellesley. I sat out there, right about the middle of that middle row, in the Wellesley class of 1990. I was among the students who protested our commencement speaker that year, the late Barbara Bush. Ms. Bush gave a fabulous commencement address, I must admit. But hundreds of young women in Wellesley’s class of 1990 did not want to hear from the wife of a U.S. president, but from a U.S. president herself. Three decades on, we still haven’t gotten there, but we will. I’m looking at you, graduates.

Enough about the purple class of 1990, today we are here to celebrate you.

I have three charges for you, the class of 2022.

First, if it’s broken, fix it. And you choose your “it.” Whatever the “it” is that you care about. 

We are in a moment of tremendous opportunity for repair of our world. So many things—the state of our democracy, the structural unfairness baked into our society, and the planet itself—all can benefit from your vision and your collective action. 

Sometimes, you won’t have all the tools to do what you need to. So, my second charge to you is: If it doesn’t exist, invent it.

And my third ask of you is to pay it forward, and do it with love and inclusivity. All the mentors and supporters of your time here, they’ve given you an immeasurable gift. Honor them (and yourself!) by paying it forward to those coming after you who need your mentorship, your support, and your love. And bring into your circle people who are different from you and bring gifts different from yours. Leading with love and welcome of all will help you build richer, cleverer, more meaningful things. 

These three principles have guided my life and career as well. 

Along my path to fixing things, inventing new things—in the beginning, I mostly broke things.

It’s true! 

In the very first week I joined Prof. Robbie Berg’s research lab here at Wellesley, I broke our very expensive laser. I was trying to make it work better, I thought, to eke a bit more power out of it, when it wouldn’t lase any more. Instead of getting more power, I got zero power. I was mortified, but Robbie was kind about it, perhaps even a bit amused, and remained encouraging. 

Not long after I broke Robbie’s laser, I blew up an electronic circuit in the lab. To fix that circuit, I needed a very expensive part, and had to convince the vendor to send me another one at no cost.

Now, with that kind of start in experimental physics, you would have thought I might have chosen a different career. But I didn’t. Robbie supported me through those formative—and failure-filled—experiences. So I thought, OK, maybe I have a chance at doing this. 

That was another gift that Wellesley gave me. I was able to try my hand at open-ended research. Little did I know that that first taste of doing research, of pushing something to its limits, of having a safe landing after failure, would define my career as a scientist. 

Even less could I have known then that I would be part of a major scientific discovery, one that shook the scientific world going on seven years ago, and has changed how we observe the universe.

For the past three decades, I have worked on the search for gravitational waves, and have had the incredible privilege of being part of a large, collaborative team that discovered them in 2015, 100 years after Einstein first predicted that gravity can be wavy. Gravitational waves are emitted when stars collide, but they are so faint that Einstein himself dismissed them as having no practical use. He was wrong about that.

Gravitational waves are so faint that it has taken decades to develop the technologies needed to detect them. To detect these elusive waves, the discovery instruments (called LIGO) had to measure the motion of mirrors a thousand times smaller than the size of a single proton.

Let me say that again: A thousand times smaller than the size of a single proton.

And I’m proud to say that I’ve spent the bulk of my career on designing and building devices that are capable of such mind-boggling precision.

I first heard about this crazy idea to detect gravitational waves as a new graduate student at MIT. I thought the idea was insane. I thought, “This could never work.” And so did many others. At the time, it was seen as unlikely to succeed, and those who worked on it were viewed as a ragtag team of mavericks pursuing an impossible dream.

For me, the possibility of being part of such an improbable discovery was too compelling not to give it a try. Of course, I did not know at the time that that “try” would take nearly three decades. (Thankfully my Ph.D. didn’t take quite that long!) 

Now I have to confess something: If I had known at the outset how long and hard it would be, I might not have embarked on this quest! I definitely didn’t plan the trajectory that life took me on. So let me take this moment to reassure you: If you haven’t planned out the rest of your lives on this, your graduation day, that’s OK!

Good, even. 

Although this milestone today is called “commencement,” it isn’t really the start of something scary and new.

Think of it as just a particularly amazing, fun, and happy day in the middle of a fascinating project you’ve been working on all your life, and will continue to work on: your personal education and a lifetime of learning and growing in directions you can’t know or predict today. 

Your journey began long before you came to Wellesley, and I bet much of your learning didn’t happen just in formal educational settings. Certainly, that was true for me. My teachers were often in unexpected places.

One of the formative experiences that led me toward a career in science was fixing things that were broken, namely repairing bicycles where I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan.

When I was about 10, I inherited an ancient bicycle from my cousin. It was a rickety three-speed Raleigh with bald tires and no brakes to speak of. It had once been bright red, but by the time it came into my hands, it was covered in rust and needed constant TLC. It took endless tinkering to make it hum (as any fine machine should). But it was the only bike coming my way, so I had to make it work.

As a kid, I could not pay for repairs, so the man at the bike shop down the street from my apartment taught me how to fix it.

If I needed parts, he let me have them in exchange for my labor in repairing the other bikes that came into his shop. An electrician’s shop was next door to the bike shop. When I wanted a bike lamp, the electrician taught me how to cobble together a dynamo. (The dynamo powers the lamp when you pedal.) 

These two men in an urban shantytown, who had little formal education themselves, probably never thought of themselves as educators—and yet they taught me electronic and mechanical skills I never would have learned in school at that age.

Little over a decade later, I was a new graduate student at MIT, interviewing to work with Rainer Weiss, one of the founders of LIGO. I started out the conversation by explaining all the fancy courses I’d taken. Rai was completely unimpressed—until I told him I knew how to fix bikes! Finally, something that he found useful. He asked me to join the quest to detect GWs that day.

Of course, you’re graduating with an expensive college degree today, so I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that school is not important too.

But even in school, my learning sometimes came in unconventional ways. My high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Ranjith, would allow me to go to the lab during recess and after hours to make creative chemical concoctions. In those off hours, I learned to make stink bombs, colorful fireworks, and even set off some minor explosions that would have made a less adventurous teacher cringe. Mr. Ranjith was undaunted.

As a former student activist and freedom fighter in his native Sri Lanka, Mr. Ranjith had a recipe or two for explosions and was willing to share them. 

These escapades sparked my lifelong interest in explorations in a lab. They also shaped me as a researcher and educator.

Along with my students, I have learned to explore the unknown, to take risks, to break things, and to fail—quite a lot, actually. (Robbie’s laser was only the first in an embarrassing but necessary lineup of bloopers.) Through it all, I have learned that clever ideas can solve the hardest puzzles, and that the hardest puzzles seed incredible creativity. I’ve also learned that clever ideas are everywhere.

And I do mean everywhere. All around us there is untapped brilliance that does not find expression due to lack of opportunity or due to our own myopic lenses. 

Ingenuity and excellence are all around us, we just have to look with eyes wide open. We will never achieve our full potential for success if we don’t bring into our institutions the tremendous talents among people who may be very different than ourselves.

In fact, if you embrace difference, you might run into someone like me.

I’m told I’m an outlier. Why would that be? Perhaps because… I’m a physicist, a woman physicist, at MIT. I grew up on the other side of the planet. I am an immigrant, from a majority Muslim country. I am queer. My parents do not have college degrees. This unlikely combination of identities is important to acknowledge at a time when so many of us are living under growing threat and marginalization.

My parents did not have the opportunity of higher education. But they took on the financial hardships that allowed my sister and me to attend an elite private school. And then an incredible financial aid package allowed me to come to Wellesley.

That scholarship changed the course of my life. As an undergraduate, I worked almost full-time to pay the family contribution component of my financial aid package. I was working so hard that I slept through more than a few classes. I shelved books at the Clapp Library, I washed pots and pans at the Munger kitchen.

At the end of my first year, I found my way to paid work in a research lab. I was amazed that I could be paid to do what I loved. Today, I still get paid to do what I love. I still wake up every morning marveling at that incredible reality.

But before you take my story as proof that our system is perfect, let me say that to do what we love is a rare privilege—much too rare!

The individual opportunities and openings that came my way mattered, and they made a huge difference in my life. I am one of the lucky few who managed to grab on to the opportunities that came my way, and was lucky enough to have mentors who nurtured and guided me. But until we address the many structural barriers and make systemic change, only a handful of “unicorns”—rare outliers—will find their way to success. In our institutions, our jobs, and our communities, we can do better than that! We must! And I know you will!

For those of you in the graduating class who told me of the great sense of privilege you feel in receiving a Wellesley education, I couldn’t agree more. It is a privilege, and we can use that privilege well.

You now have the opportunity to take this extraordinary education you’ve received and move forward in your life with integrity, kindness, awareness, and agency. If you collaborate with, mentor, and be mentored, promote others who have walked a different journey than yours, if you harbor those who need refuge and haven, if you stand up to the forces that destroy equal opportunity for everyone, you will change the world for the better. 

At a time when tribalism is on the rise, knowledge is under attack, as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, as the health of our beautiful planet and home is more threatened than ever, you, as proud Wellesley alumni, are our hope. 

You will make a difference. And now you know how. If it’s broken, fix it! If it doesn’t exist, invent it! And always, pay it forward, with love, and bring along the outliers and outsiders!

I know you are up to this challenge. During the time you have been in college: 

A global pandemic has raged that turned our world upside down and has changed how we live, work, and feel.

You have had enough of the longstanding racial injustices in our society and have instigated urgently needed, fervent activism to push us toward a more equitable and inclusive future.

You have lived through the construction nuisance of building the new Science Complex. That is the ultimate paying it forward. Generations of students after you will live and learn in those spectacular new spaces.

If anyone is equipped to navigate an uncertain future and to unselfishly work toward a better world, you are. 

I know you will use your education to be a force for good always.

Congratulations, again, to all of you.

And thank you.