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First Woman to Win Math’s Most Prestigious Prize Passes Away

Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian-American who became the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. She was 40 years old.

Mirzakhani was drawn to mathematics while in high school in Tehran, Iran, where she grew up. Encouraged by her teachers, she excelled in the Iranian education system. She was the first girl to represent the country in a mathematical olympiad. Mirzakhani also gained international attention upon winning gold medals in two International Mathematical Olympiads. In one, she succeeded with a perfect score.

The blooming mathematician received her undergraduate degree from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, and moved to the United States to work on her doctorate at Harvard University.

She soon became a professor of mathematics at Stanford University after working as an assistant professor at Princeton.

“Maryam is gone far too soon,” said Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, “but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science.”

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Stanford mathematician Jan Vondrak, and her daughter, Anahita.

CNN reported that “The Iran native thrived in study of curved surfaces such as doughnut shapes and amoebas – to a degree that other bright minds in the field dared not explore, her colleagues have said.”

The “mathematical genius” won a string of awards and honors during her career. In 2014, Mirzakhani became the first woman to receive the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics and noted to be “equivalent in reputation to a Nobel Prize.” The honor is awarded by the International Congress of Mathematicians.

The International Mathematical Union (IMU)established the award in 1936 and has presented it to at least two people every four years since 1950. All 52 recipients before Mirzakhani were men.”

The IMU called Mirzakhani’s prowess “stunning,” highlighting her achievements in complex geometric forms such as moduli spaces and Riemann surfaces. The Union stated that “because of its complexities and inhomogeneity, moduli space has often seemed impossible to work on directly. But not to Mirzakhani.”

Stanford noted in an online article that “her work could advance understanding in physics, quantum mechanics and areas outside math.”

Mirzakhani once said that “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.”

With more skill than any “luck” could account for, the humble Mirzakhani was happy to try. She said that the 2014 award was a great honor. “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.”

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said that Mirzakhani’s “doleful passing” has caused “great sorrow,” state media reported.

Rouhani saluted the “unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, [and] was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory…in various international arenas.”

Maryam Mirzakhani leaves behind the legacy of a beautiful mind; one that the world is honored to learn from.

Featured Image by Tim Geers on Flickr
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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