Remembering the Life and Contributions of Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani

Mathematician’s work broke new ground in geometry

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani received the Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics, in 2014 for her work on geometry. Credit: Courtesy Stanford News Service

Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian-born mathematician and the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal, died on July 14 after a years-long battle with breast cancer. She was 40 years old.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Mirzakhani was the first woman to compete on the country’s International Mathematical Olympiad team, earning gold medals in the 1994 and 1995 competitions. After graduating from Sharif University in Tehran, she attended graduate school at Harvard University where her work centered on hyperbolic geometry. Her Ph.D. thesis resulted in three major papers which marked a decisive step forward for the field.

After joining the mathematics department at Stanford University in 2008, she continued her groundbreaking research. Together with Alex Eskin, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, she answered a decades-old question in dynamics which can be visualized by following trajectories of billiard balls bouncing around a polygonal table.

In 2013, she was selected by the Simons Foundation as a Simons Investigator. The following year, she became the first woman and the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal, the highest distinction in mathematics, considered as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The International Mathematical Union, which awards this medal every four years, lauded Mirzakhani as having led the way to new frontiers in the study of the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.

The Simons Foundation and the IMU produced a video series about Mirzakhani and the other 2014 Fields medalists. In it, Mirzakhani talks about her childhood in Iran, and about how her passion for storytelling gave way to a love for mathematics.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.

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