“But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.”
“I got involved in Math Olympiads that made me think about harder problems.”
-Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani (2014)
The world lost Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani on July 14th. She was so young and despite her profound achievements to date, she was on a path to contribute significantly more to the fascinating field of mathematics.
I firmly believe that there are many girls and women all over the world, like myself, who feel a deep sense of loss over Dr. Mirzakhani’s death. She was such an inspiration to so many girls who loved math and were looking for a female role model. Dr. Mirzakhani achieved so much at such a young age and defied all the odds on her journey to success.
Dr. Mirzakhani got internationally recognized when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal in 2014 (which is awarded every four years), a top prize in mathematics. The Fields Medal, also known as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, was awarded to her at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea. This was unprecedented, as the 52 previous recipients had all been men. When I first read about it in 2014, I couldn’t believe it.
Dr. Mirzakhani always credited inspiring teachers and supportive friends during her high school, and college years. Her middle school teacher discouraged her interests since she wasn’t at the top of her class. But it all changed when she attended an all-girls high school. Dr. Mirzakhani credits her principal who encouraged and permitted her to compete for Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad, even though she was the first girl to do so. Dr. Mirzakhani entered in many mathematical competitions, eventually represented Iran at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and won gold medals in 1994 and 1995, while scoring a perfect score in 1995. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Sharif University in Tehran and then went to Harvard, where she studied under the direction of Curtis McMullen, also a Fields medallist.
This interview gives a lot of insight into Dr. Mirzakhani’s personality, ambition, character, and her journey.
Dr. Mirzakhani joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2009 from Princeton, where she served as a professor in the Department of Mathematics until her death.
I sincerely hope that we do not have to wait for another 52 male recipients before another woman wins the Fields medal. Dr. Mirzakhani’s journey, achievements, persistence, and patience will always be an inspiration for many girls, teachers, and women for decades to come.
Dr. Boaler at Stanford has written a heartfelt note that I highly recommend to read.