SciMy Interview: Hafizah Noor Isa - Malaysian physicist involved in the direct detection of gravitational waves

SciMy Interview: Hafizah Noor Isa – Malaysian physicist involved in the direct detection of gravitational waves


The recent direct detection of gravitational waves (GW) from the collision of two black holes) by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) laboratories has been lauded as one of the most remarkable scientific breakthroughs in recent times. This confirms a major prediction made by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity back in 1915. LIGO research is carried out as a collaboration with over 1,000 scientists from universities across the world –  little did we know that fellow Malaysian Hafizah Noor Isa is one of the researchers involved in this historic discovery.

Hailed from Kelantan, Hafizah is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) in the UK. In an email correspondence with Scientific Malaysian, Hafizah tells us a bit about herself, her involvement in the LIGO collaboration and her comments about the gravitational wave project.

Can you tell us a bit about youself?

I was born on 16th June 1987 at Hospital Machang, Kelantan and I am the youngest of seven siblings in my family. I received my primary education at Sekolah Kebangsaan Belukar and Sekolah Kebangsaan Pangkal Mak Wan, Kelantan, after which I did my secondary education at Sekolah Menengah Machang, Kelantan from 2000–2004.

Upon completing high school, I enrolled into a 1-year matriculation programme at Kolej Matrikulasi Johor in Tangkak, Johore from 2005–2006. I received my first and Masters degrees from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) Skudai, Johor in Material Physics. I did my first degree from 2006–2009 and continued with Masters degree from 2009–2012.

When I was doing my Masters degree, I was under the supervision of Prof. Dr Rahim Sahar, the Head of Department of Physics. After graduation, I worked for almost 2 years at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Jengka, Pahang as a lecturer, in the Faculty of Science. I was then offered to be a Tutor/Academic Trainee at the International Islamic University Malaysia to pursue PhD studies at the University of Glasgow.

How long have you been studying at the University of Glasgow?

I have been in the University of Glasgow since April 2014 under the supervision of Dr Ian McLaren, senior lecturer of Physics and Astronomy. In the School of Physics & Astronomy all postgraduate physics students are affiliated to the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA). I have been entrusted by my supervisor, Dr. Ian McLaren, to work in two research groups; namely the Materials Condensed Matter Physics (MCMP) Group and the Institute of Gravitational Research (IGR).

What is the aim of your PhD research?

My PhD research is to study the properties of mirrors coating in laser interferometers.

Apart from my involvement in the project, I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to be a demonstrator in Material Physics lab for third year undergraduate students. On top of that, I am blessed to be part of the teams that have long been established in the University of Glasgow and this has given me an opportunity to make a small contribution of my knowledge.

Can you tell us a bit more about IGR and your involvement in the LIGO collaboration?

IGR is focused on the development of detector hardware and software for sensing gravitational waves (GW) from astrophysical sources. The work of the IGR includes materials characterisation, advanced interferometry, and novel data processing for signal analysis. We carry out research related to Advanced LIGO, GEO600, LISA Pathfinder and other gravitational wave detectors.

Technologies originated or developed by IGR were selected as essential elements of the Advanced LIGO design, in particular the fused silica suspensions technology. In addition, the University of Glasgow leads a UK consortium of universities working with the LIGO team to design, develop and install the fused silica suspensions that support the mirrors of Advanced LIGO. Since my main PhD research is on materials, my aim in this project is to understand the noise properties of the coatings applied to these mirrors; in particular, to help in understanding how to make better mirrors in future and allow us to make even more sensitive GW detectors. IGR scientists in Glasgow who have been working in the field of GW detection since the 1970’s; they were the founding members of the LIGO scientific collaboration formed in 1997, and have been involved in the Advanced LIGO project since 2003.

This detection is of high significance, not just for the IGR, but for the whole discipline of astronomy. At present, the IGR members include a team who has worked on GEO600 team including 6 academic staff and 7 Research Assistants. In addition, many more people, including PhD students, have worked on GEO600 over the years. I would also like to congratulate fellow team members who have long worked on this project, and my contribution is nothing in comparison.

Researchers at the IGR, University of Glasgow, UK.

How do you feel about the sudden media coverage on your involvement in this major scientific discovery?

Honestly, I feel honoured and overwhelmed by the attention and publicity generated by the significant finding. When I first worked on this project, I did not expect to receive such recognition from the public. Indeed, it was my goal to dutifully complete the job successfully.

With that, I would like to thank everyone who has congratulated me on my success and those who have prayed for my well-being. I would like to extend my gratitude to the members of the two research groups I work in (MCMP and IGR); they have been very helpful in guiding me and working together to achieve the desirable result.

Do you have any advice for our young Malaysian scientists?

I really hope that I can inspire many more Malaysians, especially the young ones, to dream big and keep working towards their goals, because nothing is impossible. In fact, I hope that this opens new horizons for a new generation of young scientists to study the Universe.

Ultimately, I also hope that the Malaysian government would continue to offer scholarships to talented and deserving Malaysians and make Malaysia proud.

Last but not least, what do you do in your free time?

I enjoy collecting and reading novels as well as watching movies. I like spending my leisure time at home with my family.

Scientific Malaysian would like to thank Hafizah for speaking to us and wish her all the best in her PhD research. Congratulations and well done, Hafizah for making us Malaysians proud!

Further reading:

LIGO Lab – What are Gravitational Waves?

PHDComics – Gravitational waves explanation in comic

The two initial papers on the gravitational wave detection by LIGO collaboration:

  1. Abbott, B. P. et al Rev. Lett.116, 061102 (2016). Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger
  1. Abbott, B. P. et al J. Lett.818, L22 (2016). Astrophysical implications of the binary black home merger GW150914

Malaysian media coverage:

  1. Malaysiakini – M’sian among scientists who proved gravitational wave theory
  1. Malaysiandigest – Malaysian PhD Student Among Scientists That Proved Einstein’s Theory Of Gravitational Waves