Goodbye Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win mathematics' Fields Medal

Maryam Mirzakhani

Image: Stanford University

Born in Iran, Maryam Mirzakhani was the first – and to date, the only – woman to win the highly sought after Fields Medal in 2014. Awarded by the International Congress of Mathematicians, this honour is the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Sadly, Maryam died earlier this month in an American hospital after a four-year struggle with cancer. She was only 40 years old. 

There have been outpourings of grief and tributes shared from loved ones and members of the maths and science communities. Her friend Firouz Naderi, former director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA, wrote: "A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart… gone far too soon…A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife."

Even Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, released a public statement about her passing, in which he wrote: “The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”

Danielle Karson, a reporter for NPR, wrote: "Mirzakhani was the first Iranian woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences last year, in recognition of her 'distinguished achievement in original research.' She was in good company: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were past honorees."

Born in Tehran, Maryam studied there and also at Harvard University. Maryam became a professor of mathematics at Stanford University in 2008. When she won the Fields Medal, she told the press that for her, maths is fun. “It's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case… I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path."

She spoke of her love of pure mathematics, describing it as like being lost in a jungle. “[You need 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."

There’s no doubt that Maryam inspired countless girls, not only in the Middle East, but around the world, to pursue education and a career in maths and science. Below is a video which gives some insight into Maryam’s work. Long may her legacy continue. 

An insight into the work of Maryam Mirzakhani. Video by Quanta Magazine