Since its inception in 1936, the Fields Medal has been awarded to 52 of the most exceptional mathematicians in the world under the age of 40. For the first time, that award has gone to a woman: Maryam Mirzakhani, 37, an Iranian-born mathematician who works at Stanford. She shared the prize — the highest honor in mathematics — with Martin Hairer, 38, of the University of Warwick, England; Manjul Bhargava, 40, of Princeton; and Arthur Avila, 35, of the National Center for Scientific Research, France.
According to The New York Times, 70% of doctoral degrees in math are awarded to males, making the award to Mirzakhani especially noteworthy. In the related field of physics, only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize. Only one has won in economics.
The Fields was presented by the International Congress of Mathematicians to this year’s four winners in a ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday.
Mirzakhani’s research focuses on “understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects,” according to a Stanford release. A text provided by the ICM further explains that she works on so-called Riemann surfaces and their deformations. The ICM praised her for “strong geometric intuition.”
“Petite but indomitable, Mirzakhani has a reputation among mathematicians for tackling the most difficult questions in her field with dogged persistence,” writes Erica Klarreich in a profile of the young mathematician for Quanta Magazine. Klarreich reports that while attending middle school in Iran, Mirzakhani struggled in one math class, leading the teacher to conclude that she was not “particularly talented.” That estimation appears to have been incorrect.