50 Iranian Women You Should Know: Maryam Mirzakahni

In 2014 Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded the Fields Medal, a prestigious award often dubbed the “Nobel Prize for mathematicians”, for “her outstanding contribution” to understanding the dynamics and the geometry of curved surfaces. In 1994 and 1995 she won gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad for students, gaining a perfect score in the second competition. She became a professor of mathematics at Stanford University in 2008 at the age of 31.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran in May 1977. “As a kid, I dreamt of becoming a writer,” she told the Guardian newspaper. “My most exciting pastime was reading novels; in fact, I would read anything I could find. I never thought I would pursue mathematics until my last year in high school. I grew up in a family with three siblings. My parents were always very supportive and encouraging. It was important for them that we have meaningful and satisfying professions, but they didn’t care as much about success and achievement.”

“In many ways, it was a great environment for me, though these were hard times during the Iran-Iraq war,” she said of her discovery of mathematics. “My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general. He used to tell me what he learned in school. My first memory of mathematics is probably the time that he told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100. I think he had read in a popular science journal how Gauss solved this problem. The solution was quite fascinating for me. That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution, though I couldn’t find it myself.”

She studied at Farzanegan high school in Tehran, an institution run by Iran’s National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents. In 1994 and 1995 she was awarded gold medals by Iran’s Mathematical Olympiad, leading on to her international Olympiad success. She received her Bachelor’s of Science in 1999 from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology and received a scholarship from Harvard University, where she completed a Ph.D in 2004.

Before graduating from college, Maryam Mirzakhani had a close call with death. In March 1998 she and other mathematics students boarded a bus to travel to a mathematics competition. The bus was involved in an accident and six students were killed.

“It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out,” she said about her approach to solving mathematical problems. “I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but 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,” she told the Guardian.

In 2006, Popular Science magazine selected Mirzakhani to be on its annual Brilliant 10 list. Describing one of her early achievements, it said: “In 1999, at Harvard University, she tackled a problem that had stymied many a mathematician: calculating the volumes of moduli spaces of curves-geometric objects whose points each represent a different hyperbolic surface. Some hyperbolic surfaces are oddly shaped, like doughnuts or amoebas. Mathematicians had been trying to calculate the volume of all possible variants of these forms. Mirzakhani found a new way, using a strategy that involved drawing a series of loops on the surface of the shapes and calculating their lengths.”

In 2009 she won the American Mathematical Society’s Blumenthal Award, given every four years to mark significant contributions to pure mathematics. Her other awards include the 2013 Satter Prize in mathematics and the 2014 Clay Research Award.

Upon receiving the Fields Medal, Mirzakhani was praised by President Hassan Rouhani, former science minister Reza Faraji-Dana, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, and Mohammad Reza Aref, head of the Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Iranian media reported widely on the honor, publishing Photoshopped images of her with her head covered.

“Mirzakhani is the right woman at the right time,” said an article published in the UK’s Times Higher Education responding to the news that she had been presented with the prestigious award.

“Born with an exceptional gift for mathematics, her talents have been nurtured and allowed to flourish, her teachers have recognized and fostered her genius, and her male colleagues have not questioned her ability in a subject where raw brain power is what brings the most respect.”

Mirzakhani’s 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,” saidCurtis McMullen of Harvard University.

Mirzakhani is married to a theoretical computer scientist and has one daughter.

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