In memory of Maryam Mirzakhani, a phenomenal mathematician and an icon for women in science

July 13, 2020 - 17:31

TEHRAN – July 14 marks the third anniversary of the death of Maryam Mirzakhani, a prominent Iranian mathematician and the first woman to receive the Fields medal.

Her husband, Jan Vondrák, a Czech computer scientist at Stanford, has written in memoriam for the first time in three years after her death.

“Maryam Mirzakhani was much more for me than her public persona—a phenomenal mathematician, an icon for women in science, and a source of pride for her country. It is still hard to come to terms with what happened and to write about her in a way that reconciles my personal memories with the image she acquired on the world stage.

Maryam often said that it is hard to appreciate when everything goes well. Happiness and success depend on many moving pieces falling into place, a lot of effort and a bit of luck, and you can tell yourself many times that you should be grateful, yet it is a natural feeling that things must have happened this way and will remain like this—until life tells you otherwise.

Maryam was the first woman in history to receive the Fields Medal in 2014. But her joy was already marred by a diagnosis that she received one year earlier. What followed was a nightmare of clinging to hope after hope, all of them crushed one by one. Maryam still worked as much as she was able, but towards the end, she was concerned about Anahita’s future more than anything else. She wanted to see her go to school and she was there on Anahita’s first day. She passed away surrounded by family, two weeks after Anahita’s 6th birthday,” he wrote.

Maryam was born in Tehran in 1977. She won a place at Farzanegan secondary school, for exceptionally talented students, where she found inspiring teachers and friends. Supported by her headteacher, Maryam entered mathematical competitions previously reserved for boys and represented Iran at the International Mathematical Olympiad, winning gold medals in 1994 and 1995, the second with a perfect score.

She gained her bachelor’s degree at Sharif University in Tehran, and in 1999 she moved to Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. and was a leading scholar on the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces. In 2014, she became the first female winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.

Although Mirzakhani passed away in 2017, her invaluable contributions to the field of mathematics endure, and her trailblazing career has paved the way forward for many women mathematicians to come.

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