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Maryam Mirzakhani
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Maryam Mirzakhani – Professor and Winner of Fields Medal in Mathematics

Maryam Mirzakhani – Professor and Winner of Fields Medal in Mathematics

Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian mathematician who made notable contributions to the fields of mathematics and theoretical physics. She attended Sharif University of Technology and advanced her studies in the United States, earning her doctorate at Harvard. Shortly after, Maryam became a professor at Stanford University, where she became the first woman to be appointed as a full professor of mathematics at the institution. Read on to learn more about this inspirational SmartGirl!

Early Life and Interests of Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam was originally interested in words, not numbers. She was drawn to novels and storytelling in her younger years, and she remembers enjoying buying books and burning through them one by one. She read quickly and broadly, expanding her love of stories in later years in another, more unexpected, direction: mathematics.

Inspired to become a writer at a young age and blessed with an encouraging learning environment at home and school, Maryam grew to become a great mind in math and theoretical physics. She went on to win several competitions in her field in this kind of environment of support. Specifically, Maryam made history by winning the Fields Medal in mathematics (it’s like the Nobel Prize for math) and being the first woman—and first Iranian—to win the award.

Maryam Mirzakhani’s approach to studying math was visual and poetic; she was interested in geometry and its connections to Physics and was very abstract and theoretical. Essentially, she was curious about the origins of the universe, making her a very philosophical thinker. Many years later, her teachers remember her as a student who would approach them with curious questions that were, according to the New York Times, “‘like science fiction stories,’ vivid scenes she saw in some unexplored corner of the mathematical universe — strange structures and beguiling patterns, all in motion and interconnected.”   

International Competitions  

Even though she had some discouraging experiences at a young age and was later confronted with the false idea that girls are not good at math, Maryam later went to Harvard for graduate study and went on to teach as a professor of math at Stanford and Princeton. Maryam’s exploration and love for her work was very much visual and artistic — her young daughter even refers to her mother’s work as painting since Maryam could often be seen drawing geometric shapes and modeling mathematical formulas on large scraps of paper or chalkboard.

Curiously, Maryam sometimes even called herself “slow” at learning and studying math, but her approach was deep and detailed instead of quick and shallow. These qualities lead her to a rich life of exploration and discovery as a mathematician, making her a history-making contributor to an important field of study.  

Before her rise to teaching and studying math at the university level, Maryam gained recognition at the International Math Olympiads (IMO) which is like the Olympics or the World Cup of Mathematics. Every year, more than a hundred countries send their best minds to this competition, and the highest performers are awarded with Gold Medals!  

A Legacy of Service  

Although the power of words at first bewitched Maryam Mirzakhani, she eventually found a rhythm in mathematics that caught her lifelong attention and curiosity. She used highly expressive language when describing her work, stating that math 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.” (Stanford Press) 

With this sense of wonder, Maryam led a life of service and joy. In 2017, she passed away from a terminal illness, leaving a rich legacy in a field of study that continues to inspire students, scientists, and girls across the world.

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