Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win top mathematics prize, dies

Stanford mathematics professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman to win the Fields Medal, died Saturday after a four-year battle with breast cancer. Courtesy Stanford News Service

July 15 (UPI) — Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal prize for mathematics, died Saturday after four years with breast cancer, the university announced. She was 40.

Mirzakhani, who was born in Iran, won the quadrennial Fields Medal in 2014, the most esteemed award in mathematics that some say is equivalent to the Nobel Prize and was first awarded in 1936. The prize was for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said at the time.

Mirzakhani, who joined Stanford in 2008, specialized in theoretical mathematics.

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

Mirzakhani attended an all-girls high school in Tehran and grew up during the Iran-Iraq war.

In 1994, she won the gold medal in the Iranian International Mathematical Olympiad at age 17. In 1995, she earned a perfect score and two gold medals.

She graduated from Sharif University in Tehran in 1999 and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 2004.

“At Harvard, Mirzakhani was distinguished by her determination and relentless questioning, despite the language barrier,” according to a Stanford News Service release. “Her questions came in English. Her notes were jotted in Farsi.”

After her doctorate at Harvard, Mirzakhani accepted a position as assistant professor at Princeton University and as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute.

“What’s so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together these disparate pieces,” said Steven Kerckhoff, at the time of her Fields Medal award. Kerckhoff is a mathematics professor at Stanford and was one of Mirzakhani’s collaborators.

She also collaborated with Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago on trajectory of a billiards ball around a polygonal table. The challenge, which began as a thought exercise among physicists a century ago, had yet to be solved.

The paper she completed based on that exercise was published in 2013. The paper, more than 200 pages long, has been hailed as “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics and “a titanic work.”

“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,” University of Wisconsin professor Jordan Ellenberg wrote in a Slate article in 2014.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, an associate professor at Stanford University, and daughter Anahita.

“A light was turned off today, it breaks my heart…. Gone far too soon,” Iran-born NASA scientist Firouz Naderi posted on Twitter.

He then posted: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

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