The über important field of science, mathematics, has bestowed its highest honor on a woman for the first time. The Fields Medal, mathematics’ top honor, was awarded in South Korea to Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian professor, for her work in the field.
Mirzakhani, aged 37, is the first woman in the history of the award to have been given the honor. The award, touted by many as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, was described as “a really big deal” by the late Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting. The professor, who grew up in Tehran, Iran, now teaches at Stanford University. Mirzakhani was awarded the honors in Seoul at the South Korean installment of the International Congress of Mathematicians. The Congress recognized her superlative contributions in the field of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces, in particular the geometry and dynamics associated.
For Mirzakhani, the award is a great honor. In an interview with Stanford News, the mother of a three-year-old daughter hoped that her achievement would encourage other female mathematicians and scientists. She also added that she would like many women following her footsteps in the future. Mirzakhani, who initially wanted to be a writer, shifted gears as a teenager growing up in Iran. Teachers encouraged the young Mirzakhani to pursue mathematics and directed her to it. It was in 1994 in Hong Kong that the then 17-year-old Mirzakhani won her first gold medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad. In the 1995 installment of the same Olympiad in Toronto, the 18-year-old obtained a perfect score, sealing her future with mathematics. What made the achievements worth recalling was that she was the first female member of the Iranian team.
The unyielding rules of the Field Medal may be the reason that mathematics had never before bestowed the honor on women. Two to four mathematicians will call themselves worthy recipients of the medal at the quadrennial ceremony, but they are only eligible if they are under 40. Most mathematicians who publish their best work miss out on qualifying for the medal because of the age bar. Since 2006, the awards has come with a prize of $15,000 Canadian. Most people see the age limit as a special hindrance to women, since it is the prime age of motherhood for most.
Although mathematics’ highest honor has been bestowed on Mirzakhani, the first woman in the history of the award, she remains humble and unpretentious. A student of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET), Tehran, she graduated in mathematics from the Sharif University Of Technology, Tehran. A Ph.D from Harvard followed in 2004, where her research was supervised by fellow medalist Curtis McMullen. The same year, Mirzakhani took up a fellowship at the Clay Mathematics Institute, Rhode Island, and was the assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University. The email announcing her as the winner of this year’s Field Medal looked suspicious to her at first, she says, but the obviously humbled mathematician shared the honor with the many women in mathematics also currently doing great things.
By Rathan Paul Harshavardan.