Thursday, 22 April 2021

Maryam Mirzakhani was a role model for more than just her mathematics

Maryam Mirzakhani

On July 14, Maryam Mirzakhani, Stanford professor of mathematics and the only female winner of the prestigious Fields Medal in Mathematics, died at the age of 40.

“A light was turned off today, it breaks my heart…. Gone far too soon,” the Iranian NASA scientist, Firouz Naderi, wrote in his latest post on Instagram. Later he twitted: A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.

Mirzakhani, 40, fought with cancer for four years and was hospitalized lately as the cancer has spread to her bone marrow.

The two times gold medal winner in the International Mathematical Olympiad received her Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Iran’s Sharif University of Technology in 1999 and earned a PhD degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 2004.

From 2004 to 2008 she was a Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow and an assistant professor at Princeton University. She was a professor at Stanford University. Her honors include the 2009 Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics and the 2013 Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society.

Mirzakhani also became the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded a Fields Medal.

Maryam was a “hall of fame” all by herself. She modestly attributed her own success to her perseverance, hard work and patience. As she put it:

“The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”

Unfortunately, when she was honored with the Fields Medal, she was already tackling her last challenge, the breast cancer that eventually killed her.

Maryam’s contributions to the field of mathematics will long be remembered. But just as important is her legacy as a role model.

Maryam was an Iranian, a woman and an immigrant to the United States. Unfortunately, these three words together raise red flags for some in Western countries, particularly in the U.S., in the time of Trump’s proposed travel ban.

In the same way people think of Marie Curie or Jane Goodall as scientific pioneers, Maryam Mirzakhani will go down in history as a trailblazer as well as a mathematical genius.

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