MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants Awarded to Cornell's Michal Lipson and MIT's Nergis Mavalvala

(Combined from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation press release/website and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release)

October 5, 2010

Winners of this year's 2010 MacArthur Fellowships -- often referred to as the MacArthur "genuis" grants -- include members from two Kavli Institutes: Michal Lipson, Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, and Nergis Mavalvala, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Lipson and Mavalvala are among the 23 Fellows announced this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which also included a stone carver, jazz pianist, high school physics teacher, marine biologist, theater director, American historian, fiction writer, economist, and a computer security scientist. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

Researching science at its smallest scale, Lipson has focused on the physics and application of nanoscale photonic structures, with a particular focus on light-confining structures that can slow down, enhance and manipulate light. Researching science at its largest scale, Mavalvala has focused on detecting gravitational waves created in the violent collisions of stars and in the earliest moments of the universe.

As recipients of the "genius grants," each is awarded a $500,000 purse that may be used as either sees fit.

Michal Lipson, Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science

MICHAL LIPSON is an optical physicist working at the intersection of fundamental photonics and silicon fabrication engineering to develop devices that harness the information-processing capabilities of light. Although manufacturing conventional digital chips etched in silicon is a mature technology, these electronic circuits cannot match the theoretical speed and capacity of optical systems. Lipson has emerged as a leader, despite relatively modest resources, in designing optical and hybrid opto-electronic devices with silicon-based fabrication methods. Carefully regulated etching of silicon can create linear or circular paths (waveguides) for light to traverse; Lipson has demonstrated that ring modulators (circular waveguides) can effectively serve as switches for light passing through adjacent linear waveguides when the frequency of light pumped into the modulators is precisely tuned relative to the linear waveguide. Her continued refinement of both opto-electronic and purely optical circuits has decreased their size, increased their efficiency, and accelerated their switching speed. The resulting silicon-based photonic integrated circuits have the potential to improve signal transmission and processing dramatically. Lipson’s elegant solutions to a variety of theoretical and engineering challenges in silicon photonics are paving the way for the future development of practical and powerful optical computing devices.

Michal Lipson received B.S. (1992), M.S. (1994), and Ph.D. (1998) degrees from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Since 2001, she has been affiliated with the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University, where she is currently an associate professor. Her scientific articles have appeared in such journals as Nature, Nature Photonics, Optics Express, and Physical Review Letters.

Nergis Mavalvala, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research

NERGIS MAVALVALA is a physicist whose research links the world of quantum mechanics, normally apparent only at the atomic scale, with some of the most powerful, yet elusive, forces in the cosmos. Although predicted by General Relativity Theory, gravitational waves—fluctuations in space-time curvature that propagate as waves in a pond—are very difficult to observe directly. As a graduate student, Mavalvala developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. This early work led to the identification of an important stabilization principle that was later incorporated into the design for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a collaboration among scores of physicists and currently the most sensitive observatory of its kind. Mavalvala’s more recent research focuses on minimizing, if not circumventing, barriers imposed by quantum physics on the precision of standard optical interferometers. One strategy she uses is to cool the macroscopic components of the device (i.e., the mirrors) into a coherent quantum state; such components, large enough to see without magnification, exhibit bizarre quantum properties previously observed only at the atomic level. Applying strategies such as this at the scale of the LIGO instruments (i.e., kilogram-scale mirrors separated by kilometers) has the potential to boost significantly the sensitivity of the device. Through this and other technically challenging, unconventional approaches, such as squeezed coherent states and optical springs, Mavalvala is making fundamental contributions to physics at the intersection of optics, condensed matter, and quantum mechanics. Her experimental advances are enhancing our ability to detect and quantify gravitational radiation with still greater precision, data that may be critical to incorporating gravitation within a unified theory of the basic forces in the universe.

Mavalvala received a B.A. (1990) from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. (1997) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to her appointment to the faculty of the Department of Physics at M.I.T. in 2002, she was a postdoctoral fellow (1997­–2000) and research scientist (2000–2002) at the LIGO Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Read MIT press release.

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