May 12, 1977 – Birth of Maryam Mirzakhani, Winner of the Fields Medal, the Most Prestigious Award in Mathematics

Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian-born mathematician and a professor of mathematics. In 2005, as a result of her research, she was honored in Popular Science’s fourth annual “Brilliant 10” in which she was acknowledged as one of the top ten young minds who have pushed their fields in innovative directions.

Maryam was born on this day in history, May 12, 1977 in Tehran, Iran, where she lived before moving to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Harvard University.

She discovered her passion for math in middle school. By high school she was participating in the International Mathematical Olympiad, winning gold medals in 1994 and 1995. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Sharif University in Tehran and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for graduate study at Harvard in 1999, getting her doctorate in 2004 for her “exceptionally creative, highly original thesis” on geodesics, or curves representing the shortest path between two points in a surface. (The quote is from the citation accompanying the Leonard M and Eleanor B Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics for her thesis.)

From 2004-2008 Mirzakhani was an assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University. In 2008 she became a full professor at Stanford University.

In 2014, Mirzakhani was honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. In so doing, she became both the first, and to date, the only woman and the first Iranian to be honored with the award.

At the time of the award, American mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg explained her research to a popular audience:

[Her] work expertly blends dynamics with geometry. Among other things, she studies billiards. But now, in a move very characteristic of modern mathematics, it gets kind of meta: She considers not just one billiard table, but the universe of all possible billiard tables. And the kind of dynamics she studies doesn’t directly concern the motion of the billiards on the table, but instead a transformation of the billiard table itself, which is changing its shape in a rule-governed way; if you like, the table itself moves like a strange planet around the universe of all possible tables … This isn’t the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it’s the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal. And it’s what you need to do in order to expose the dynamics at the heart of geometry; for there’s no question that they’re there.”

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani was the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford News Service)

Mirzakhani described herself as a “slow” mathematician, saying that “you have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math.” To solve problems, Mirzakhani would draw doodles on sheets of paper and write mathematical formulas around the drawings. Her daughter described her mother’s work as “painting.”

She declared:

I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs] … 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.”

On July 14, 2017, Mirzakhani died of breast cancer at the age of 40.

At her death, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne declared:

Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science. Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

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