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Maryam Mirzikhani: A Woman Has Won the Fields Medal, Math's Highest Prize, for the First Time

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AUG. 12 2014 4:52 PM

A Woman Has Won the Fields Medal, Math's Highest Prize, for the First Time

By Ben Mathis-Lilley

The Fields Medal, awarded every four years to between two and four scholars under the age of 40, is math's highest prize. It was first given out in 1936—and news has broken that, this year, Stanford profesor Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first woman to win the prize. Per this profile in Quanta Magazine, Mirzakhani was raised and received her undergraduate degree in Iran before attending graduate school at Harvard, where she finished her doctoral thesis in 2004. She's won the Fields for her work with the "dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces" which—and I apologize to mathematicians out there for whatever I do to butcher this description—roughly means that she considers abstract questions related to non-Euclidean entities such as, for example, the surface of a pretzel.

She sounds absolutely brilliant. Know anything else about her?

Wikipedia says she was born in Tehran, Iran in May 1977.

woohoo!  way to represent the ladies!!  the world needed a female mathlete to help change the stigma that math is a man's realm.

I agree. I wonder if she ever gave a TED talk about her experiences. 

I could only find this:

that was a nice video!  and helpful in understanding how she applies math to life.

Yes. I will keep my eyes open for more videos from her.

I wonder if your brother can take a class with her.

oooh... that would be fun!  i'll talk to him about it.  :)


Maryam career advice:

Earlier this month, Iranian-born Stanford mathematics professor Maryam Mirzakhani becamethe first woman to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal in the prize's nearly 80-year history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has some pretty solid advice to offer on making one's way through the world.

A quote from Mirzakhani has been making the rounds recently. Many have attributed it to an interview published at The Guardian that ran around the same time Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal. In fact, the interview was conducted in 2008 by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which had awarded Mirzakhani a research fellowship four years prior. I mention this because the The Guardian's version has trimmed a number of questions and answers from the original interview, which is a bummer, because the unedited version is really very good:

What advice would you give to young people starting out in math (i.e., high school students and young researchers)?

I am really not in a position to give advice; I usually use the career advice on [Australian mathematician] Terry Tao's web page for myself! Also, everyone has a different style, and something that works for one person might not be so great for others.

What advice would you give lay persons who would like to know more about mathematics—what it is, what its role in our society has been and so on? What should they read? How should they proceed?

This is a difficult question. I don't think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don't give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.

The quote you may have seen already is Mirzakhani's response to the second half of that two-part question, i.e. the advice she would give to lay persons. It's great advice. The bit about the beauty of things revealing themselves only to their most patient followers is as true of mathematics as it is of many pursuits in life. But her words carry more weight, I think, when they're preceded by her response to the first question.

It's reassuring to learn that one of the world's greatest mathematicians reads another mathematician's blog for career advice. It's refreshing to hear her verify that yes, there are different learning styles, different passions, and different skill sets, and that "something that works for one person might not be so great for others." She is a teacher, remember. A Stanford professor who oversees not only an introductory course on ergodic theory (one of her research interests), but advanced courses as well. This also helps contextualize her belief that "that many students don't give mathematics a real chance" – an observation she makes not only as someone who once struggled with mathematics herself, but as a teacher of students. Students she recognizes may not become mathematicians (or chemists, or physicists, or biologists, or anthropologists, or poets, or literary theorists), but who might still invest the time necessary to access, appreciate, and celebrate the world's more subtle beauties.

Read Mirzakhani's full interview here.


Elle magazine:

Awesome news: Maryam Mirzakhani, a 37-year-old mathematics professor at Stanford University, has become the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics. She received the honor for her contributions to the fields of topology, geometry, and dynamical systems. Her recent collaboration with mathematician Alex Eskin about the "dynamics of abstract surfaces connected to billiard tables" was heralded by other leaders in her field as "the theorem of the decade."

Do I understand what that means? Aside from the pool table part, not so much. Like many girls, I wasn't encouraged to pursue careers in technical fields like math or science. Mirzakhani hopes her award motivates young girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects. "I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani told theStanford Report. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

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