The International Mathematical Union established an award to honor excellence in mathematicians under the age of 40. The award was named after Canadian mathematician John C. Fields, and has often been described as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics.” The Fields Medal has been awarded every four years since 1936. Up to four outstanding mathematicians can be honored at once, but 2014 is the first time a woman has been honored with the prize. Maryam Mirzakhani is a professor at Stanford University who was recognized for "her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”
Born in Tehran, Iran, Mirzakhani’s excellence in math extends back to when she was in high school. She earned gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad—the world’s most distinguished math tournament for pre-collegiate students—not once, but twice. Her showing in 1995 resulted in a perfect score for her; a most impressive accomplishment.
"It is fun – it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she explained to the Stanford Report. "I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path.”
She completed her undergraduate degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and earned her PhD at Harvard University while studying under Curtis McMullen, who was awarded the Fields Medal himself back in 1998.
Mirzakhani is being honored for her work with finding the volume of moduli spaces in complex one-dimensional planes known as Riemann surfaces. However, she is quite talented in many areas mathematics, with research interests in “Teichmüller theory, Hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory, [and] Symplectic geometry."
"I don't have any particular recipe [for creating new proofs],” she stated. "It is the reason why doing research is challenging as well as attractive. It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”
Her work has the potential to influence many areas of study, including material science, engineering, quantum field theory, and even theoretical physics as it applies to the origin of the Universe.
"This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani said. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
There were three other mathematicians honored with the Fields Medal in 2014, including Artur Avila (Instituto Nacional de Matemática Pura e Aplicada), the first Latin American to ever receive the medal, as well as Manjul Bhargava (Princeton University) and Martin Hairer (University of Warwick). Along with the incredible distinction that comes along with receiving the Fields Medal, each winner also received a cash prize of C$15,000.
The IMU presented the prizes today (August 13) at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea.