One was killed by a mob of Christian zealots.
Another had to study under a false name.
Although Albert Einstein praised another as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began” after her death in the ’30s, she couldn’t get a teaching job. When she finally did, the Nazis took it away because she was Jewish.
The struggles of female mathematicians Hypatia (killed in the 5th century), Sophie Germain (1776–1831) and Emmy Noether (1882–1935) are now history. However, not until Tuesday did a woman win the Fields Medal — “the Nobel of math,” as Time magazine put it — first awarded in 1936.
The achievement of Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani is not just unprecedented, but unlikely in a field where women remain underrepresented. As few as 9 percent of tenure-track positions in math are held by women, according to a 2010 study.
“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a Stanford University news release. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Mirzakhani was born in Iran, dreaming of becoming a writer. It was a tumultuous time in Iran, she said in an interview with the Clay Mathematics Institute. The country was still embroiled in war with Iraq and “those were hard times,” she said.
But she nonetheless remembers the first time she heard about mathematics. Her brother had a problem — and it would make her abandon her writing aspirations.
“My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general,” she told the Clay Mathematics Institute. “He used to tell me what he learned in school. My first memory of mathematics is probably the time that he told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100. I think he had read in a popular science journal how [German mathematician Johann Carl Friedrich] Gauss solved this problem. The solution was quite fascinating for me. That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution.”
There would be many more in her career. The war ended when she finished elementary school, and she and a friend spent time wandering in and out of bookstores in Tehran. “We couldn’t skim through the books like people usually do here in a bookstore,” she said. “So we would end up buying a lot of random books.”
She eventually went on to study at Harvard, where she found herself explaining her Iranian upbringing often. “I should say that the education system in Iran is not the way people might imagine here,” she explained to the Clay Mathematics Institute. “As a graduate student at Harvard, I had to explain quite a few times that I was allowed to attend a university as a woman in Iran.”
In fact, she’s never really left the university setting. And today, she studies “geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects,” as Stanford phrased it.
What this means for people who couldn’t hack trigonometry: Her work may help engineers and cryptographers.
And she’s not working on any single problem.
“I don’t have any particular recipe,” Mirzakhani said. “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.”
Though a way out of race and gender disparities in STEM fields probably isn’t coming soon, Mirzakhani has at least cracked a glass ceiling. Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, told Time Mirzakhani’s success was “hugely symbolic.”
“I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women,” Daubechies said. “I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular ‘it has never happened before.’ ”