From zero to infinity, the thought itself is formidable for most of us. When a large population considered mathematics as a pointless and cold subject, a young woman's mind was fascinated and excited by it. Transcending beyond boundaries, Maryam Mirzakhani, a woman mathematician from Iran, went on to become the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. Fields Medals are regarded as the mathematics' Nobel Prize (which does not exist for mathematics).
Growing up in Tehran was difficult for imaginative Maryam since the Iran-Iraq war was fought from 1980 to 1988, and the environment was tough. She dreamt of becoming a writer and was creative enough to make stories of a girl who achieved great things like becoming a mayor. Growing up, her favorite pastime was reading novels, and surprisingly she did not love playing with numbers. Her older brother got her curious about mathematics by telling her stories about elegant ways to solve problems. She completed her schooling in Tehran and has always credited her teachers for her education. She stressed during an interview that she was fortunate to have a nurturing environment at home and that her mentors fought hard to have equal opportunities for girls in a post-war world. She also stated the importance of her friendship with a classmate, Roya Behesti. She has said that such alliances not only help to build your passions but keep you motivated to achieve your dreams.
Maryam Mirzakhani represented Iran in the Mathematical Olympiad in 1994. She scored 41 out of 42 and was awarded a gold medal. The more time she spent with mathematicians, the more she fell in love with mathematics. During her undergraduate program at Sharif University, she published scientific papers and survived a bus crash while participating in an inter-city mathematics competition. There was no stopping Maryam henceforth. She completed her graduate studies at Harvard under the guidance of Prof. Curt McMullen and was awarded the doctorate in 2004 for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. Being from Iran, she often drew comparisons between the education system of Iran and the USA. She took the best from each of the cultures advancing in her pursuit of mathematics. She described her work to be connected with theoretical physics, topology, and combinatorics. Being a pioneer in her field, she was fascinated and inspired by the multiple ways and perspectives a problem could be approached as well as the existence of different methods to solve a problem. She found collaborations exciting and learned a lot from collaborators, all while working on her mathematical enigmas. While she took pride in the accolades, she was never concerned with them. Her research ideology was to follow the problems and be guided by them in the field. She directly engaged with the scientific challenge with mathematics, no matter how formidable the challenge was.
In 2004 she was offered a junior fellowship at Harvard, but she turned down to accept the Clay Research Fellowship. She was appointed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. The Clay Fellowship offered many benefits to Maryam. She was able to think about more challenging problems, travel freely, and it allowed her to have rewarding mathematical conservations with colleagues. She has also said on record that she was a slow thinker and took time to clean and present her ideas. Her humble nature allowed her to admit her shortcomings and praise colleagues of different backgrounds for helping her make progress in her work.
Maryam started her career in mathematics with a background in combinatorics and algebra, but by the time she joined Stanford University as a Professor of Mathematics, she was described as "a master of curved spaces." In a short time, she proved many amazing theorems about shortest paths called 'geodesics' on curved surfaces, among many other remarkable results in geometry and beyond. In her own words, she described that "The most rewarding part is the "Aha" moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new, the feeling of being on top of a hill, and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight!"
Maryam advocated for students to find their passion in life. She did not believe that everyone should become a mathematician, but she firmly believed students should give mathematics a real chance. She once said, "I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers". Upon being asked to give career advice to students, Maryam simply said that she used career advice on Terry Tao's web page herself.
As of today, women only represent 20 percent of full-time math faculties in U.S. universities, according to the American Mathematical Society. Women need to change the stereotyped role models to "see themselves" in certain STEM careers. Maryam's legacy will inspire the next generation of women.
Legacies are not defined by accolades but are defined by the way they inspire millions of minds. A down to earth woman mathematician who won a Fields Medal loved spending time with her husband and daughter while enjoying herself reading and exercising. Being a simple, humble young woman from war-torn Iran, a loving wife, and a beloved mother of a daughter, Maryam Mirzakhani has shown the world that legacies like hers will inspire millions of young women to pursue and excel in any field of choice. Maryam Mirzakhani's stimulating legacy dares girls all over the world to dream big and pursue their dreams facing any adversities in the way.