Who was the first woman to win the Fields Medal?

Friday, March 29, 2024

Maryam Mirzakhani wasn’t afraid to blaze trails.

When she was a high school student in 1990s Iran, no woman had ever competed in the Iranian Mathematical Olympiad. She entered anyway: and won a gold medal. She went on the International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong, and won gold there as well.

Headshot of Maryam Mirzakhani

Mirzakhani kept going, earning her Bachelor of Science in math in Iran, then getting a PhD from Harvard. There, she did ground-breaking work studying dynamics and geometry. She talked about trying to understand the “beauty” of math. She would doodle on sheets of paper and draw formulas wrapping around the drawings – which her daughter called her “paintings.”

In 2014, her work was recognized with one of the highest honors in math: the Fields Medal. Often called the Nobel Prize of math, the medal was established in 1936 to recognize brilliant work by a mathematician under 40. Mirzahkhani was the first woman to win the medal, almost 80 years later.

Mirzakhani’s career was tragically cut short when she died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 40, but her curiosity and passion for math continues to inspire us. Math research, she wrote, “is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some tricks, and with some luck, you might find a way out.”