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Highest Honor in Math Goes to a Woman, Finally

Maryam-Mirzakhani-Fields-Medal-500px (2).jpg

We've written plenty on this blog about efforts to inspire more girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math careers. Seems to me this recent news could help.

For the first time since it was established 78 years ago, the prestigious Fields Medal—viewed as the Nobel prize of mathematics—was awarded to a woman. The medal is given every four years to recognize exceptionally talented mathematicians under the age of 40.

Maryam Mirzakhani, a 37-year-old math professor at Stanford University, was one of four medal recipients for 2014. According to the Stanford News Service, Mirzakhani was recognized for her "sophisticated and highly original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects." Her work, the release notes, "has implications for physics and quantum field theory."

As a teenager, Mirzakhani wanted to be a writer, but then became interested in working on mathematical proofs. "It is fun—it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she said in the Stanford release. "I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path." She won back-to-back gold medals at the International Math Olympiads in the mid-1990s. 

The Iranian-born Mirzakhani received the prize Aug. 13 at the International Congress of Mathematicians, held in Seoul, South Korea. (There's a nice video about her work on the ICM website here.)

"This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani told the Stanford News Service. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani on the campus of Stanford University. On  Aug. 13, the Iranian-born Stanford University professor became the first woman to win math's highest honor, the Fields Medal. —Maryam Mirzakhani via Stanford/AP

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