Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani

Some people in this world are destined for greatness. From being the first girl on the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad team to the first and only woman to win the coveted Fields Medal, Mathematician Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani was one of those people. Dr. Mirzakhani serves as a shining example of how anyone, no matter their gender can be blessed with an intelligent mind.

Mirzakhani was born in May 1977 in Tehran, Iran. Iran was not a great place to live at the time, with the Iran-Iraq war raging from 1980 to 1988.

Nevertheless, Mirzakhani saw success as a promising young mathematician. Though she considered a career as a writer and even had a middle school teacher tell her she was not talented in mathematics, she still had a passion for the subject.

In high school, Mirzakhani and her close friend, Roya Beheshti, found a copy of some problems from the Mathematical Olympiad.

The International Mathematical Olympiad started in 1959, is the world championship in mathematics for high school students. Mirzakhani solved three of the six problems. Her success with the champion-level problems encouraged her and Beheshti to approach the school principal and ask for a high-level math class at the girls-only school.

Thankfully, the principal said yes. In 1994, Mirzakhani and Beheshti became the first girls on the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad team. Mirzakhani took gold medals in both 1994 and 95, even receiving a perfect score in the 1995 competition in Canada.

In 1995, Mirzakhani accepted a fellowship from the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM) to study mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.

She published three papers during her undergraduate degree, including two first-author publications entitled “A small non-4-choosable planar graph” (1996) and “A simple proof of a theorem of Schur” (1998).

Mirzakhani graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1999 and moved to the U.S. to complete her Ph.D. at Harvard. Her doctoral advisor, Dr. Curtis McMullen, won the Field’s Medal in 1998.

He later recalled her “daring imagination,” saying, “She would formulate in her mind an imaginary picture of what must be going on, then come to my office and describe it. At the end, she would turn to me and say, ‘Is that right?’ I was always very flattered that she thought I would know.”

Her Ph.D. research focused on Riemann surfaces and had implications in several other fields, including quantum field theory. She finished her Ph.D. in 2004.

Mirzakhani accepted a research fellowship at the Clay Mathematics Institute, where she worked until 2008. She also worked as an assistant professor at Princeton University.

She published six papers in a span of two years, covering Weil-Petersson volumes, hyperbolic surfaces, and Ergodic theory.

She accepted a position at Stanford University in 2008 and continued to tackle tough theoretical mathematics topics.

A colleague later described her as “fearless” in her pursuit of solutions.

Mirzakhani was awarded the 2013 Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics by the American Mathematical Society and in 2014, she won the Fields Medal— the most prestigious award in mathematics— for her work with Riemann surfaces. She is the only woman to win this award since its inception in 1936.

In 2016, she became the first Iranian woman elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. She was also elected to the Paris Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tragically, the brightest stars always burn out the fastest. Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, which spread to her liver and bones in 2016. She passed away on July 14, 2017, at the age of 40, leaving behind a husband and daughter.

We’ll never know just how far she could have taken us into the world of theoretical mathematics. After her passing, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said, “Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins (lahn7d@mail.umkc.edu) for more information.

mew9bc@mail.umkc.edu

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