Women In Math: Maryam Mirzakhani, Winner of the Fields Medal

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Science Literacy Week is almost upon us, and we are beyond excited that the theme this year is mathematics! To celebrate, we are offering FREE math-based workshops for students throughout Canada (more on that below!) and putting the spotlight on some amazing mathematicians. We are starting with Maryam Mirzakhani, one of the only two women to have won the Fields Medal.

Mirzakhani’s math journey

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1977, Maryam didn’t dream of being a mathematician. In fact, she dreamt of being a writer, however, she eventually found a love for maths and its challenges.

In 1994, at the age 17, she became the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She came back to compete again the following year and achieved another gold medal, this time with a perfect score.

Maryam Mirzakhani explaining math problem in front of a white board
Professor Maryam Mirzakhani received the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honour in mathematics.

After graduating from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran with a BSc in Mathematics, she pursued her PhD in the United States at Harvard University. Later she became a professor at Princeton, and finally, she taught at Stanford. 

During her PhD at Harvard, Mirzakhani’s doctoral thesis not only solved 3 individual problems but connected them. Her thesis focused on hyperbolic surfaces, which are shapes that look like the one above.

Hyperbolic surfaces only exist in abstract spaces where a particular set of equations govern them. These shapes are one of the central objects in geometry, in other parts of math and even physics. The unanswered question about hyperbolic surfaces was about geodesics, the straight lines on a hyperbolic surface that show the shortest path between two points.

To understand hyperbolic surfaces, you have to study the curves that sit on them. Mirzakhani found how many closed geodesics of a given length can a hyperbolic surface have. She later connected it to two other major research questions that she had solved.

The slow mathematician

Mirzakhani’s work often went beyond the constraints of the real world, but she had a pragmatic approach to both life and mathematics. A self-professed “slow” mathematician, she was willing to struggle through difficult problems and their obstacles so that she could truly understand them.

This quality allowed her to approach new mathematics with fearless ambition, as she was content with thinking about something for years without any certainty that she could figure it out.

Her work made a huge impact in her field, and it will only continue to grow as other researchers explore it.

The Nobel Prize of mathematics

In 2014, Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal, which is sometimes called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, as it is the most prestigious award a mathematician can win, and is awarded every 4 years. Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Fields Medal since its conception in 1936.

In 2013, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer, which ultimately led to her death in 2017. Mirzakhani’s legacy is not quantifiable; she not only imparted genius mathematical knowledge but showed a tenacity and gentleness in her work. We hope that Mirzakhani’s legacy will continue to inspire, us as one of the greatest mathematical minds of our generation. 

Learn more about the fascinating world of mathematics

We will be leading workshops for this year’s Science Literacy Week. We would love to facilitate a workshop at your school so make sure to join us for Science Literacy Week from September 19-23rd.

If you’re a teacher and want to book a workshop with SCWIST, send an email to msinfinity@scwist.ca with the following information:

  • Name of your school and its address
  • Number of students in your class and their grade
  • Your preferred dates and times for the workshop (must be between September 19-23)

We are also looking for volunteers to help us facilitate the workshops and inspire the next generation of STEM leaders. To learn more and register click here.

Also, make sure to follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and LinkedIn and check out our website for more events and workshops!

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