The First Woman to Win Math’s Highest Award Dies at 40 

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“A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win the Fields Medal, died this past weekend after a long battle with breast cancer.  The Fields Medal is equivalent to the “Nobel Prize for mathematics.”

She was one of only four winners given the prestigious award, which is conferred every four years. The prize is seen by many as an indicator of mathematicians possessing incredible potential, as it is restricted to people under the age of 40.

Mirzakhani was primarily recognized for her work on complex geometry and dynamic systems. Her work on curved surfaces could have a significant impact on theoretical physics, including the origin of the universe. Trickling down from this, quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering, and material science could also see developments that stem from Mirzakhani’s work.

Mirzakhani was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. She initially dreamed of becoming a writer, but when she started high school, her new-found love of working on mathematical proofs shifted her sights. While in high school, she received international recognition for winning gold medals in two International Mathematical Olympiads.

Mirzakhani completed her undergraduate degree at Sharif University, located in Iran’s capital. She then moved to the United States to pursue a doctorate degree from Harvard. At Harvard, she was distinguished by her determination and relentless questioning.

Her mentor at the time, and fellow Fields Medal recipient, Curtis McMullen, said her achievements, “combine superb problem-solving ability, ambitious mathematical vision and fluency in many disciplines, which is unusual in the modern era, when considerable specialization is often required to reach the frontier.” McMullen described Mirzakhani as filled with “fearless ambition” and reflected on Mirzakhani’s dissertation as “a masterpiece.”

According to Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, Mirzakhani’s dissertation “solved two longstanding problems; either solution would have been newsworthy in its own right.”

After her doctorate at Harvard, Mirzakhani accepted a position as assistant professor at Princeton University and as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute. In 2008, she joined Stanford University as a professor of mathematics. She worked at Stanford from 2008 until her sorrowful death on Saturday, July 15th.

Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, and after four years, the cancer metastasized to her bone marrow.

After hearing word of Mirzakhani’s passing, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne remarked: “Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science…Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician at Stanford University, and a daughter named Anahita. After her death, former director of solar system exploration at NASA Firouz Naderi, posted on Instagram: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

Kamyar Yazdani is a student at Duke University.

Kamyar Yazdani is a student at Duke University studying biology. He writes about the intersection of politics and science and is originally from Iran.

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