Maryam Mirzakhani: First Female Winner of Math's Top Prize

The Fields Medal has been awarded to pioneering mathematicians every four years since 1936, and this year was the first time it was given to a female mathematician. Maryam Mirzakhani, who is also the first Iranian to win the prize, is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University in California. 

The Fields Medal is known colloquially as the "Nobel Prize for mathematics," as there is no actual Nobel Prize awarded in that field. The Medal has the additional requirement that recipients be under the age of 40; Mirzakhani is 37. The age limit for the Fields Medal was put in place to help encourage younger mathematicians doing cutting-edge work.

Recognized for her talent in mathematics at a young age, Mirzakhani won gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1994 and 1995. After completing her undergraduate degree in mathematics at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran, Mirzakhani headed to the United States, where she earned her doctorate at Harvard University. Now, Mirzakhani is known for her work studying several aspects of theoretical geometry, including moduli spaces and Riemann surfaces, as well as rational billiards, a field that combines mathematics and physics.

In an interview, Mirzakhani cites having had good teachers and supportive peers as being instrumental in building her foundation in mathematics. She also recognizes the reputation that math has with many students, saying, "I do believe that many students don't give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."

Like in most other STEM fields, women are underrepresented in mathematics, comprising only about a third of math doctoral graduates and a third of the mathematics workforce. Mirzakhani's achievements make clear the great things female scientists are capable of, but they also should remind us how far we still have left to go to achieve equal gender representation in STEM. An inspiration both in STEM and to women everywhere, Maryam Mirzakhani's name should not be soon forgotten.

Video credit: simons foundation / international mathematical union


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