Maryam Mirzakhani and the Power of Firsts

This week, I was stunned to hear of the death of Maryam Mirzakhani. I wrote about Mirzakhani years ago in one of my first Friday emails, when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics across the globe.  Mirzakhani won for her work on “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”  She was born in Tehran, Iran, where she went to school and earned early accolades in mathematics (1994 and 1995 gold winner of the International Mathematical Olympiad).  She went to the US for her graduate work, earning a PhD from Harvard, becoming a professor first at Princeton and eventually at Stanford University. 

I read a fascinating interview with Mirzakhani here. In this interview, Mirzakhani credited her success to a number of factors.  First, the Iran-Iraq war ended when she was in elementary school, making it possible for her to attend a high school in Tehran with very good teachers. She befriended Roya Beheshti (a fellow mathematician now at Washington University), and they kept one another motivated. Mirzakhani had a strong-willed principal who went a long way to ensure that her all-girls’ school was given the same opportunities as the boys’ school.

When Mirzakhani got to Harvard, she learned that she needed to catch up on a few subjects that she hadn’t learned before, and said that she “…started attending the informal seminar organized by Curt McMullen. Well, most of the time I couldn't understand a word of what the speaker was saying. But I could appreciate some of the comments by Curt. I was fascinated by how he could make things simple and elegant. So I started regularly asking him questions, and thinking about problems that came out of these illuminating discussions.”  It’s okay to recognize that we don’t know something – and Mirzakhani demonstrates that it’s actually a positive thing, so long as we have the confidence and will to ask questions, think about the answers, and learn something in the process. 

What startled me about Mirzakhani was the number of firsts for her – first woman to represent the country in the Mathematical Olympiad, first woman to win the Fields Medal, first Iranian to win the Fields Medal.  Across the globe, we have some important work to do to encourage our girls to continue attending school, to give them equal opportunities as boys, and to inspire them to pursue careers in mathematics.  Even where I went to school, in my maths program, there were three men to every one woman.  We need to do better.  Impact Network actually enrolls more girls than boys – approximately 55% of our 2,300 students are young girls.  But we also have to focus on making sure they stay enrolled, and continue to succeed throughout their primary and secondary schooling years.

Mirzakhani’s obituary in The Economist was beautiful – I hope you’ll read it and remember her this week.