September 2014

Mirzakhani Becomes First Woman to Win Top Math Prize

Maryam MirzakhaniMaryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani
Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematics in Seoul, South Korea.

On August 13, 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal for mathematics. The medal was first given out in 1936, almost 80 years ago. Awarded once every four years, it is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize” for mathematics. Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford University, received the prize at a ceremony in Seoul, South Korea. She won for her “striking and highly original contributions to geometry.”

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, in southwestern Asia. When she was a child, she never thought about becoming a mathematician. Instead, she read every book she could find and dreamed about becoming a writer. In middle school, one of her best friends encouraged her interest in mathematics. Mirzakhani did not do well in math at first, but she did not give up.

In high school, Mirzakhani started entering math competitions. With each year of practice, she got better and better at solving problems. In 1994, at age 17, she made the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad team. She earned a gold medal two years in a row in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). The IMO is the world championship mathematics competition for high school students.

After high school, Mirzakhani earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology. She then moved to the United States to work toward a doctoral degree at Harvard University. It was there that she became interested in hyperbolic geometry. This advanced geometry is also important in the study of physics. Mirzakhani earned her doctoral degree in 2004.

When Mirzakhani thinks about a mathematical problem, she likes to draw doodles on paper. She makes shapes that help her work out the problem. Sometimes her three-year-old daughter thinks that she is painting, not working on math. Mirzakhani also studies the behavior of balls bouncing off the sides of a billiard table. She examines the shapes created by the many different paths the balls take.

Mirzakhani hopes to inspire more young women to make big accomplishments in mathematics. She thinks that many more women will win the Fields Medal in the future. She is honored to receive the prize, but is eager to get back to making more discoveries in mathematics. She enjoys taking on the big problems that can take years to solve.

Image credit: ©Lee Young Ho/Pool/Sipa USA/Associated Press
Question 1
Which prize did Maryam Mirzakhani win?

Question 2
What activity helps Mirzakhani work out math problems?

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