Maryam Mirzakhani: The First Woman to receive the Highest Award in Mathematics

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Last Wednesday, Maryam Mirzakhani achieved a huge milestone in the female community. On August 13th in Seoul, South Korea, The International Mathematical Union awarded Mirzakhani the Fields Medal, making her the first woman to achieve the highest honor in the field of Mathematics. The other three recipients, like all past recipients were men.

What is the Fields Medal?

The Fields medals were first proposed in 1924. The idea was that, every four years, the two mathematicians that had made the most outstanding mathematical discoveries in the world would receive this gold token. Each Fields medal recipient was also awarded 15,000 Canadian dollars in honor of their achievement. Professor J. C. Fields provided a donation and, thus, the Fields medal was born. Later, in 1966, the number of recipients rose from two to four.

Why did Mirzakhani get the Fields Medal?

Mirzakhani grew up in Tehran, Iran. She discovered her love for numbers in high school and gained attention in the math community as a teenager, when she won gold medals in two International Math Olympiads, achieving a perfect score in one of them. Mirzakhani’s undergraduate degree came from the Sharif University of Technology in Iran. Here doctorate came from the education she received from Harvard University after moving to the United States. After college, she was an assistant professor at Princeton before becoming a fully-fledged professor at Stanford. Mirzakhani’s drive was not fame or fortune, but the simply desire to fulfill her curiosity and unearth the deeper mysteries of the world of mathematics. This drive helped her achieve an impressive array of accomplishments in Reimann surfaces and moduli spaces that the International Mathematical Union found stunning. Mirzakhani’s field of mathematics, Reimann surfaces and moduli spaces, revolves mainly around complex geometric forms. Instead of studying squares, triangles, and circles, Mirzakhani studies roundish objects that pertain to theoretical math. The geometric complexities behind objects shaped like donuts, pretzels, and even amoebas all fall into her line of work.

What does this milestone mean?

Not only has Mirzakhani made a great personal achievement, but she has also opened more possibilities for women. This year, three men and one woman won the Fields medals. In the coming years, there might be a day when all four of the medals go to women. It is people like Mirzakhani that open the world of STEM to women and help them into this line of work. It would be great if, one day, there were an equal amount of men and women in STEM, all contributing to the human knowledge of our world around us.

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