Stanford Professor Is First Woman Awarded Fields Medal

A Stanford University professor became the first woman awarded the Fields Medal, the top international prize in mathematics.

Known as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” the Fields Medal was presented to Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani today at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, Stanford said in a statement. Mirzakhani, cited for her work on geometry and dynamical systems, was among four recipients this year.

Mathematics has long been a field dominated by men. Women comprised 28 percent of the 1,669 doctorates conferred in mathematics and statistics in 2011-2012, according to data by the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s only up 5 percentage points from two decades earlier.

“I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani, 37, said in the statement. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

Mirzakhani, who has been at Stanford since 2008, received her doctorate in 2004 from Harvard University, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her adviser there, Curtis McMullen, received the Fields Medal in 1998. She was an assistant professor at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, from 2004 to 2008 as well as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute in Providence, Rhode Island.

Pure Mathematics

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani congratulated Mirzakhani in a message on his Twitter account, saying her win makes “us Iranians very proud.”

Her research is in pure mathematics, or abstract concepts that may not have an immediately obvious use, Stanford, near Palo Alto, California, said in the statement. Her contributions may have an impact on topics ranging from theoretical physics on how the universe came to exist to the study of prime numbers and cryptography, which is the writing or solving of codes, according to the statement.

Born in Tehran, Mirzakhani dreamed of becoming a writer as a young girl, though switched to mathematics in high school, according to the statement.

“It is fun,” she said in the statement. “It’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case.”

The medal, founded in 1936, is awarded every four years and must be given to those under the age of 40, according to the International Mathematical Union, the group that bestows the prize, which includes a C$15,000 ($13,700) monetary award. She is the first Stanford honoree since 1966, when a medal was awarded to Paul Cohen.

South Korea’s first woman president, Park Geun Hye, presented the awards. The three other recipients this year were Princeton University’s Manjul Bhargava, Artur Avila of the National Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in Brazil and the National Center for Scientific Research in France, and Martin Hairer of England’s University of Warwick.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to show the monetary award is in Canadian dollars, not U.S. dollars.)

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