Following in the footsteps of the Ancient Persian Scholar, Khwarizmi, known as the “Father of Algebra”, a young Iranian woman, Maryam Mirzakhani carried on the Persian legacy of the rigorous pursuit of knowledge. Through her diligence, determination, and relentless questioning, she exceeded the old boundaries for women mathematicians winning many “firsts” in the field of mathematical theory, research and innovation.
Though an ardent and recognized scholar of mathematics through her high school years, her formal education began at Sharif University of Technology where she obtained a BS in Mathematics in 1999. That same year, though still in Tehran, she received recognition from the American Mathematical Society for her work. She continued her education in the United States for graduate work and went on to earn a PhD in 2004 from Harvard University. Her work advanced mathematical theory and applications not only in the United States, but across the globe. She described her process as similar to “being lost in a jungle and trying 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.”
As a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, she not only continued her research in Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry, but clearly hoped to inspired a new generation of women to pursue and excel in ground breaking discoveries in the field of mathematics. It seems she was indeed an inspiration to many.
Her commitment to teaching and mentoring young women was recognized In 2014 as students at the University of Oxford founded the Mirzakhani Society for women and non-binary students studying Mathematics at the University of Oxford. In 2019 she was recognized on her birthdate, May 12th at the first International Women in Mathematics Day . Again, in recognition of her work and commitment to women in mathematics, on February 11, 2020 the International Day of Women and Girls in STEM, Mirzakhani was honored by UN Women as one of seven female scientists dead or alive who have shaped the world. The list goes on.
Her legacy also inspired fellow Iranian Americans Dr. Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard and Anousheh Ansari to establish graduate fellowships at the Stanford University School of Humanities in order to attract that next generation of world leaders in mathematics. Yassini proudly noted that like Khwarizmi, she “was the embodiment of the contributions that the Iranian community has made globally throughout history across the humanities, arts and sciences.”
Maryam died after a long battle with cancer at the age of 40. She is survived by by her husband, Jan Vondrák, their daughter, Anahita, as well as her parents, sister and two brothers.
Though her life was short, the long list of her achievements included the Fields Medal, known as the Nobel Prize of math. This prestigious award was never before or since bestowed upon a woman or Iranian. Her full list of achievements, her humanity and dedication to her passion were well known and highly celebrated among her peers and indeed around the world.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne observed, “Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science. Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world”.
Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford went on to say, “She not only was a brilliant and fearless researcher, but she was also a great teacher and terrific PhD adviser. Maryam embodied what being a mathematician or scientist is all about: the attempt to solve a problem that had not been solved before, or to understand something that had not been understood before. She is is driven by a deep intellectual curiosity, and there is great joy and satisfaction with every bit of success. Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person. She will be tremendously missed”.
Her many award and honors are listed below:
The 2020, recipients of the 8th annual BREAKTHOUGH PRIZE, (known as the Oscars of science) which recognizes top achievements in life sciences, physics & mathematics, were honored at a televised ceremony in Silicon Valley.
Alex Eskin, University of Chicago was awarded $3 million as the recipient of the The Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics which honors the world’s best mathematicians who have contributed to major advances in the field. The prize was awarded for “revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the “Magic Wand Theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani.” Like past winners, he intends to donate a significant sum to an International Mathematical Union fellowship for graduate students pursuing doctorates in developing countries.
In his acceptance speech, Eskin, who co-teamed on this discovery and worked closely with Maryam on this discovery for many years, payed special tribute to Maryam and her contributions.
In 2020, George Csicsery produced and released a documentary, “Secrets Of The Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani“, a film highlighting the life, determination and contributions of Maryam.