Maryam Mirzakhani is the First Woman to Win This Prestigious Math Prize

Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian professor of mathematics at Stanford University, just became the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Referred to as the “Nobel Prize of math,” the Fields Medal is the highest honor one can receive in mathematics. Since it was first awarded in 1936, the prize has been given out every four years to between two and four mathematicians under the age of 40 who exhibit profound mathematical achievement that demonstrates a promising future in the field.

Selected for her unique and highly sophisticated contributions to the field of complex geometry, Mirzakhani’s work draws connections between topography, geography and dynamic systems. She is well-known by her colleagues for the originality and creativity she brings to her research, as well as for the genuine curiosity behind it.

“What’s so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together these disparate pieces,” said Steven Kerckhoff, one of Mirzakhani’s collaborators at Stanford. “That was the case starting with her thesis work, which generated several papers in all the top journals. The novelty of her approach made it a real tour de force.”

It’s no secret that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields: While women make up approximately half of the overall workforce, they number far fewer in science and engineering occupations—less than 30 percent. Mathematics in particular remains starkly dominated by men, who earn 70 percent of doctoral degrees in the field. There are also many other prestigious math awards, such as the Abel Prize and the Wolf Prize, that have yet to be won by a woman mathematician.

“I bet the vast majority of the mathematicians in the world will be happy that it will no longer be possible to say that ‘the Fields Medal has always been awarded only to men’,” notes mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union. Mirzakhani’s win is proof that women can and do excel in STEM, and indicates that a long overdue shift is in the works.

The Fields Medal was presented to Mirzakhani and three other winners on August 13 at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul. Mirzakhani is confident that her accomplishment is part of a larger positive trend. She said in a Stanford news release earlier this week,

I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in years to come.

Photo of Maryam Mirzakhani from Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons 2.o.


Rachel Kassenbrock is a writer who works at the Feminist Majority Foundation and blogs for Ms. Follow her on Twitter at @rkassenbrock.