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The life and work of Maryam Mirzakhani

Background Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian-born mathematician and professor at Stanford University, born in Tehran, Iran. By her own estimation, she was fortunate enough to grow up after the Iran-Iraq war, when the political, social, and economic situation had stabilised, so she could focus on her studies. As a teenager, she showed her mathematical skills by winning gold medals in 1994 and 1995 in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Mirzakhani first gained her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999 before going on to earn her PhD in 2004 from Harvard University. She then became a Clay Mathematics Institute research fellow at Princeton University before finally becoming a full-time professor at Stanford University in 2008.

Research Her PhD was concentrated on the topic of Riemann surfaces and by the time she became a professor, she was considered to be a leader in the fields of hyperbolic geometry, topology, and dynamics. Her contributions to her field also led to her being awarded a Fields Medal, often regarded as one of the highest honours a mathematician can receive, in 2014, in which the award committee commended her for her ‘outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. She is the first and to date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936. Her technique involved using the moduli spaces of surfaces. In 2014, the Mirzakhani Society was founded by students at the University of Oxford, a society for women and non-binary students studying Mathematics at the university in which Mirzakhani met whilst visiting Oxford back in 2015. Mirzakhani also became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016, which made her the first Iranian woman to be officially a part of the academy. Mirzakhani said she enjoyed pure mathematics the most, due to the elegance and longevity of the questions she studied. Death Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and unfortunately ended up passing away on 14 July 2017 (at the age of 40) at Stanford Hospital. Many paid tribute to her in the days following her passing, with Mirzakhani’s birthday (12 May) being agreed by the International Council for Science to be International Women in Mathematics Day. On 4 November 2019, it was announced that The Breakthrough Prize Foundation had created the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize which was to be awarded to outstanding women in Mathematics annually.

By Samantha and Saachi

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