A Brief History of Maryam Mirzakhani: A Wonderful Mathematician

Posted in July 2017

Last week, on July 14th 2017, the world lost Maryam Mirzakhani to Breast Cancer.  She passed away at the young age of forty.


Mirzakhani was, of course, most known for her mathematics. Her legacy includes being the first woman to win the Fields Medal back in 2014, an award given to those who are incredible mathematicians under the age of forty.  It’s considered to be the most prestigious award a mathematician can hope to ever receive.


Born in 1977 in Iran, she spent much of her time in her home country, going to schools specifically for children that had special talents.  She specifically attended Farzangehan School, an all-girls middle and high school where the children take classes as though they were already attending college.


Throughout her career, she was recognized for the joy that she had for math, her humility, and her overall brilliance.  The New Yorker wrote an article about her, quoting a few scientists on the qualities they saw in her.  In reference to her mathematical ability, one mathematician (who also won a fields the same year Maryam Mirzakhani had) said of her:  “[She] was a master of curved spaces. […] Maryam proved many amazing theorems about such shortest paths—called ‘geodesics’—on curved surfaces, among many other remarkable results in geometry and beyond.”  (Manjul Bharagava to the New Yorker)


In 2013, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it quickly spread to her bone marrow.  Despite this, Bharagava continued to tell the New Yorker that she was still producing some of her best mathematical work throughout her illness.


Unfortunately, as one might expect, Mirzakhani left some family behind.  A husband named Jan Vondrák, who is a computer scientist and mathematician himself, and their daughter Anahita. Their daughter, who is currently six years old, considered her mother’s work art — often calling her mother’s work “paintings”.


In STEM, math almost seems to be the subject people avoid the most.  Though math is technically in every aspect of STEM in one way or another, math can be extremely intimating to many people.  Mirzakhani was a fantastic example during her lifetime for everyone in this matter.  She’s quoted as saying:  “You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math”.


Maybe all of us can step back and see the beauty in Maryam Mirzakhani’s honor.