Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani didn’t have a deep love for mathematics as a child growing up in Tehran, thinking perhaps she might become a writer. While attending the Farzanegan High School for girls she and a friend got a copy of the questions used to determine which students would represent Iran at the International Olympiad in Informatics.
Solving three of the six problems the two friends went to their school principal demanding courses in math problem solving like ones at the high school for boys. The principal supported the girls in their efforts and the next year the two became the first females to be part of the Iranian math Olympiad team. In 1994 Mirzakhani earned the gold medal on the Olympiad test which she followed up the next year by earning a perfect score on the test, and another gold medal.
By using these competitions to discover what she could do, she had developed a deep love of mathematics which she was able to transfer into a career in research and teaching. Earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology, she continued her studies in the United States, earning a doctorate from Harvard in 2004. Her doctoral thesis solving a decades old problem of calculating the volumes of moduli spaces of curves on objects known as Riemann surfaces was broken into three sections and each was published in prestigious mathematics journals. Further work has focused on Teichmüller dynamics of moduli space and complex geodesics and their closures in moduli space.
In 2014 it was announced that Mirzakhani would be the first female recipient of the Fields Medal, considered equitable to the Nobel Prize, for her work on the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. And while she knows that this award is a great honor and hopes it encourages more young women to pursue careers in math, she doesn’t want to be seen as the face of women in mathematics – eager instead to deflect attention away from her achievements and focus on continuing her research.
Written by Angela Goad