Winner of the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics, 40-year-old Stanford University Professor Maryam Mirzakhani died Saturday –confirmed by the university – at an undisclosed location in the U.S. She had been suffering from breast cancer which had spread to her bones.
On August 13, 2014, Mirzakhani not only became the first woman but also the first Iranian, ever, to win the award which is considered and revered as the “Nobel Prize for Mathematics.”
Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne paid glowing tributes to the professor calling her “a brilliant mathematical theorist and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path”.
“Maryam is gone far too soon but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” he said.
“Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world,” Tessier-Lavigne added.
Talking about her areas of expertise, a Stanford University press announcement said:
“Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry,’ said the statement.
Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes, and even amoebas – in as great detail as possible.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a condolence message said: “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heart-rending,” reported the Tehran Times.
“The news of young Iranian genius and math professor Maryam Mirzakhani’s passing has brought a deep pang of sorrow to me and all Iranians who are proud of their eminent and distinguished scientists,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Farsi in an Instagram post.
Born on May 3, 1977, Maryam Mirzakhani attended the Farzanegan School in Tehran becoming the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1994 and in the very next Olympiad in 1995 she bettered her own record by winning 2 gold medals after securing a perfect score.
Soon after getting her BSc degree in mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999, she moved to the United States in pursuit of higher studies. She earned her doctorate from Harvard University in 2004 under the mentorship of Curtis Tracy McMullen, himself a Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University.
- IPM Fellowship, Tehran, Iran, 1995–99
- Merit fellowship Harvard University, 2003
- Harvard Junior Fellowship Harvard University, 2003
- Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow 2004
- AMS Blumenthal Award 2009
- The 2013 AMS Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics.
- Clay Research Award 2014
- Fields Medal 2014
- National Academy of Sciences 2016
Other Honors and Recognition
- Invited to talk at the International Congress of Mathematicians in 2010, on the topic of “Topology and Dynamical Systems & ODE”
- Named one of Nature’s ten “people who mattered” (2014)
- Plenary speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians in (2014)
- Elected foreign associate to the French Academy of Science (2015)
- Elected to the American Philosophical Society (2015)
- Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2017)
It may come as a surprise to readers that Mirzakhani was not always inclined towards mathematics – initially, she had dreamed of becoming a writer but later shifted her focus to math.
At one time Mirzakhani had described her work as “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.”
Mirzakhani had been struggling with breast cancer since 2013 which spread to her bone marrow in the four intervening years ending in her sad demise on July 15, 2017. She is survived by her scientist Czech husband Jan Vondrak and their six-year-old daughter Anahita.