At the International Congress of Mathematicians held in 2014 in Seoul, Stanford mathematics professor Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman honored with the prestigious Field’s Medal. Born in Tehran in 1977, she died of cancer this July, aged only 40. Her daughter was six years old.
The Fields Medal is considered the top accolade in mathematics, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in status. Mirzakhani was awarded this medal by the Former President of South Korea Geun-hye Park for her work in “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces”. Described by her colleagues as a virtuoso in this area, which concerns the behavior of curved surfaces, she solved previously impenetrable mathematical problems with her own methods, one of which is dubbed the “magic wand” theorem for its transformative effects.
Mirzakhani’s capabilities became obvious at a young age; in the 1990s she won gold in the International Mathematics Olympiad twice, being the first girl ever to compete for Iran. After gaining a mathematics BSc, she moved to the US, earning her PhD at Harvard, where, not yet fluent in English, she is said to have been “distinguished by her determination”. Her thesis included a surprising new proof of a string theory conjecture concerning topological measurements — one so complicated that its first proof earned a Fields Medal in 1998.
Speaking to The New Yorker after her death, Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser Curtis McMullen said, “Some scientists and mathematicians engage in a problem to go beyond what other people have done; they measure themselves against others. Maryam was not like that; she would engage directly with the scientific challenge.” As a research fellow of the Clay Mathematics Institute, Mirzakhani commented, “I find it fascinating that you can look at the same problem from different perspectives ... discussing mathematics with colleagues of different backgrounds [is] one of the most productive ways of making progress.”
Mirzakhani’s legacy as a woman in a male-dominated field will continue after her death. “Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Notably, Iranian newspapers marking the significance of her death broke taboo by publishing photos of her with her hair uncovered.
Consistently described as humble and approachable, Maryam Mirzakhani will be remembered not only for her outstanding achievements, but also for leaving a legacy for all young women in scientific professions.