Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) – The First Woman to win Fields Medal

Maryam Mirzakhani- An Iranian Mathematician who set an example by being the foremost female Fields Medal winner.

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Maryam Mirzakhani (Source: Wikimedia)

Maryam Mirzakhani – the first woman of hopefully many, to win the Fields Medal, died on 14th July 2017. A brilliant Iranian mathematician and a professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, her legacy consists of many accolades and laurels for her work in Mathematics, particularly in the areas of hyperbolic geometry and symplectic geometry: both branches of classic mechanics. As a female and woman of color, she is a role model for Asian women who rarely get opportunities to be at the forefront of cutting edge research.

She always harbored a positive attitude even after being diagnosed with breast cancer, which she finally succumbed to in 2017.

Looking at videos of her teaching online, one can clearly tell that she was incredibly passionate about teaching and her research work. In the memorial held for her, one of her lifelong friends and colleague, Professor Roya Beheshti, shared that Maryam never bragged or showed off her achievements, even after reaching such an esteemed position in her life. The attitude she had towards life was mainly fueled by the philosophy that one should always finish what they start.

She always harbored a positive attitude even after being diagnosed with breast cancer, which she finally succumbed to in 2017. One of her professors at Harvard was quoted as saying,

“What struck me in our conversations was that how modest she was whilst describing her brilliant work. She would talk about it in such a simple and humble way, that one would think that it was simple to do what she did.”

Not only did she excel in academics, but also had other noble interests. She participated in volunteer work of assisting disabled students during her time at Harvard.

Another instance of her incredible modesty was when she received the Fields Medal and didn’t even mention it to her parents, waving it off as ‘no big deal’.

She did spectacularly well in her undergraduate studies at Sharif University in Iran. Her advisor at Harvard talked about her, revealing an interesting feat of her attitude to mathematics. She was known to “Work very visually, and with geometric intuition”. A central part of her concept building as a mathematician revolved around exercising her creativity and imagining fictional situations to apply the concepts, crafting narratives to make sense of the mathematical world. Her advisor described her questions as being

“Mathematical short stories of her own invention. Sometimes fictional, but always intriguing.”

What people admired the most about her, however, was how she maintained the determination to continue even when the task seemed impossible. This unfaltering determination was what made people like her and Dr. Abdus Salam the pioneers they were. A trend to be noted in the personalities of these extraordinary people was that they never considered themselves above other people or showed any arrogance in their dealings with their subordinates or colleagues. In fact, their legacy lives on in the notion that they were as human as the rest of us, albeit more courageous and determined.

A female professor at the University of Oregon, Professor Shabnam Akhtar, shared her memories with Maryam in the following words:

“Through my relationship and friendship with Maryam, I realized that what I was impressed by, for years, was that for her, her success in mathematics was not very significant. It was through our friendship that I learnt that there are deeper layers and dimensions to actual success and excellence. As a mathematician working in an automated atmosphere, where aggressive and hostile behaviour is considered necessary for advancement, I feel extremely fortunate to have known Maryam. She knew what she was doing and did not spend time on anything that she didn’t feel was good or pure.”

The lessons we have to learn from her legacy do not only lie in the mathematical equations and expressions she derived, but also in the way she lived her life, and impacted the lives of others around her.

Her impact will surely live on through the thousands of women she inspired to pursue mathematics.Hopefully, many more hard-working people like her will continue to grace the colloquial momentum of mankind.

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