A woman has received the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, for the first time in history.
Until Wednesday, the Fields Medal had only been awarded to men – that is, until Maryam Mirzakhani received it from the International Mathematical Union for her work on “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces."
Mirzakhani’s work was not driven by a practical purpose, but rather to further mathematical knowledge. However, her work has helped inform physicists, advance scientists’ understanding of the origins of the universe and further the knowledge of the workings of subatomic particles. Each of these elements could have implications for engineering.
In addition to the medal itself, which is often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, each winner is awarded $13,700 in cash. Each prize is given to a researcher aged 40 years old or younger every four years. Although the award is a recognition of achievement early in a mathematician’s career, it’s also an indication of those to watch in the future.
The Iran native grew up in the capital, Tehran, where she first discovered her natural talent for numbers in high school.
“It is fun,” Mirzakhani said. “It’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case.”
Mirzakhani gained international attention when she won two gold medals in two International Math Olympiads, achieving a perfect score in one.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in Iran, Mirzakhani moved to the United States and worked on her doctorate at Harvard University. She was an assistant professor at Princeton University before continuing her research at Stanford.