Maryam Mirzakhani, known for her outstanding accomplishments in the field of mathematics, was born in Tehran, Iran on May 12, 1977. Growing up in Tehran, her gift for math was identified at a young age. She attended the Tehran Farzanegan School, which was part of Iran’s National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET). In high school, she won a gold medal for mathematics at the Iranian National Olympiad, and she would also go on to win gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiads in Hong Kong (1994) and Toronto (1995). She would ultimately become one of Iran’s most decorated mathematicians, and her contributions to the field were significant and influential.
In 1999, Mirzakhani earned a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Iran’s Sharif University of Technology. While in attendance, she was widely recognized for her research developing a simple proof for a theorem of Schur. After graduation, she enrolled at Harvard, where she earned a PhD in 2004; her dissertation solved two outstanding problems, and her work was published in three top mathematics journals. According to her supervisor, Dr. Curtis McMullen, Mirzakhani was filled with “fearless ambition.”
After graduating from Harvard, Mirzakhani took a role at Princeton University as an assistant professor, and she also earned a research fellowship at the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2004. In 2009, she accepted a position as a professor at Stanford University. Her most impactful contributions to mathematics came through her research in Teichmüller theory, ergodic theory, hyperbolic geometry, and symplectic geometry. Her award-winning work centered around Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. In 2005, she was named in Popular Science as part of the “Brilliant 10,” a comprehensive list of 10 young people who made innovative discoveries within their fields. In 2014, Mirzakhani received the world’s most prestigious award within the field of mathematics: the Fields Medal. As of 2021, she is the only woman to have earned the Fields medal since its inception in 1936.
Tragically, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, and she passed away at the age of 40 on July 17, 2017. In death, she was recognized by many for the wide-ranging impact she had on both women in STEM and the field of mathematics. Iranian state newspapers even broke tradition and posted photos of Mirzakhani with her hair showing, and Iranian President Rouhani remarked that the “unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory.” Stanford president at the time, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, noted that Mirzakhani’s influence would live on in “the thousands of women she inspired.”