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First Female Fields Medal Winner Came to U.S. from Iran

Friday, September 5, 2014

Maryam Mirzakhani, a mathematics professor at Stanford University, was awarded the 2014 Fields Medal – the “Nobel Prize of mathematics.”  Born and raised in Tehran, Professor Mirzakhani is the first woman to win the medal since the inaugural award in 1936. She was recognized for her exceptional work in geometry and dynamical systems. The Fields Medal, known formally as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, is widely regarded as the most prestigious prize in mathematics.

Professor Mirzakhani's work is generally theoretical – “pure mathematics” – and does not yet have great application outside the field, but it has implications for use in both quantum field theory and physics. Mirzakhani’s study has  contributed greatly to the understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as those of spheres, three-dimensional hyperbolic objects and the surfaces of tori, which are donut-shaped objects. Professor Mirzakhani’s research could have potential application for the theoretical physics behind the origins of the universe. With quantum field theory, her work could have secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within the field of mathematics, the work Mirzakhani has done has implications for the study of both prime numbers and cryptography.

Although her initial passion was writing, by high school, the elegance of mathematical proofs captured Mirzakhani’s attention. She gained renown in the the international mathematics community as a teenager at the International Math Olympiads. In 1994, she won a gold medal; in 1995, she won her gold medal by achieving a perfect score in the competition.

She attended the Sharif University of Technology and earned her B.S. in 1999. Mathematicians who would be Mirzakhani’s mentors and colleagues later in her career, were already following the mathematical proofs she developed as an undergraduate. From Iran, she went on the Harvard for her doctoral work, where she was advised by Curtis McMullen, who had, himself, been awarded the Fields Medal.

After earning her doctorate, Mirzakhani was a Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow and assistant professor at Princeton University. She joined Stanford’s faculty as  a professor of mathematics at Stanford in 2008, where she continues her research on the symmetry of surface geometry.  Mirzakhani accepted the Fields Medal from the International Mathematical Union on Aug. 13 at the International Congress of Mathematicians, held this year in Seoul, South Korea.

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