Maryam Mirzakhani Busts Stereotypes About Women and Science


Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani won the 2014 Fields Medal, the first woman ever to the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”

Maryam Mirzakhani was not always sure of her path in life. As a child in Iran, she was clearly creative and vastly intelligent. It just wasn’t clear where she should funnel her energies. Early on, during her childhood in the 1980s, she thought that she might become a writer. Mirzakhani loved reading novels and bought volume after volume from the local book shop. The influence of a number of adults in her life, however, soon began to shift her attentions elsewhere.

“My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general,” she said in a 2008 interview with the Clay Mathematics Institute, where she was a research fellow. He would tell his younger sister about the mathematics problems he had encountered in school. Maryam became fascinated with the detective work necessary to solve a complex equation or theoretical problem. She is also naturally excited by the “ah-ha” moment that marked her discovery of a solution.

Various teachers and friends also shaped her path. In one middle school math class, Mirzakhani earned surprisingly low marks. Combined with the teacher’s less than enthusiastic judgment of her skills, Mirzakhani felt deeply discouraged. She began to wonder if mathematics was truly worth her interest and effort.

Luckily, her next math teacher was far more encouraging. In the same school, Maryam also encountered Roya Beheshti, now a fellow mathematician. The friendship between the two would help to bolster their mutual interest in math. Their principal was, in Mirzakhani’s words, “a strong-willed woman”. She worked especially hard to provide the school’s girls with the same opportunities available to male students.

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By the time she had graduated high school Mirzakhani was well on her way to becoming a stellar talent in the field of mathematics. She emigrated to the United States to attend graduate school. She eventually graduated from Harvard with her Ph.D. and now teaches at Stanford University. One wonders where she would have taken her considerable mathematical talent if she had not been able to move to the United States because of a travel ban.

In 2014, Mirzakhani received the Fields Medal, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”, for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces”.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years. It is given to between two to four mathematicians who are all under forty years old. Despite the fact that the Fields Medal has been around since 1936, Mirzakhani was the first (and, so far, only) woman to receive the honor.

Mirzakhani has largely built her reputation on hyperbolic geometry. She works with geometric figures that are largely theoretical and very complex. They’re so complex, in fact, that she often works on large rolls of paper. There, she doodles, takes notes, and go over problems again and again until she reaches that vaunted moment of epiphany.

To work with that complexity, Mirzakhani has developed a few different approaches. She’s subsequently been able to produce truly stunning, innovative work in a devilishly complicated field.

Physicist Lise Meitner (left) with students on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Meitner encountered gender-related discrimination throughout her career. (Image courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

For one, she’s slow. Unlike some mathematical stars, who seem to produce the answers to their equations in a dramatic flash, Mirzakhani can spend months or even years on problems. Indeed, some problems have been circulating in her mind for over a decade. Far from being a concern, this thoughtful approach can be very fruitful. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects,” she said.

Collaboration has proven key in many of her most important findings. 2012 and 2013 team ups with University of Chicago’s Alex Eskin and Amir Mohammadi (University of Texas) produced some of her most astounding work. Mirzakhani and Eskin’s 172-page paper and other work on moduli space has made a big splash. Some of their colleagues have called it “titanic” and “the beginning of a new era”.

“The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers”

Mirzakhani frequently draws upon the excitement and joy inherent in math. If a high school math class had reduced you to tears, that statement may seem utterly confusing. Math… is… exciting?

I mean, yes, of course, it is. Almost anything can be a source of wonder if you have the right motivations and circumstances. “I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician,” Mirzakhani said in her 2008 CMI interview. “[B]ut I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance…. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”

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Her Fields Medal recognition is heartening, given the sometimes grim numbers concerning female scientists. Mathematics has an especially poor track record, with only 9 to 16 percent of tenure-track top-tier academic jobs held by women. It’s certainly better than it was a little over a century ago when the idea of an academic woman was nearly unthinkable. However, there’s still a fair amount of work to do. Mirzakhani’s hard work, and her subsequent recognition is an important step in the right direction.