If you are a movie fan, you will recognize the name from Good Will Hunting. The Fields Medal is the ‘Nobel Prize for Math’. And today is a day of firsts for the prestigious medal. A woman mathematician cracked the glass ceiling and won the award.
Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani won the medal for her work that will help engineers and cryptographers. It is a handy skillset in the post-NSA scandal world. For a more technical description of what she does, Stanford described her work as “geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects.”
Translation? She’s smarter than most. Mirzakhani also realizes what the award means to women in STEM fields. In a press release from Stanford, she talked about encouraging young women to dive into science and math. “This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Math wasn’t her first choice as a kid. Maryam Mirzakhani had dreams of becoming a writer. Born in Iran during the war, she told the Clay Mathematics Institute the hard times endured by her country. It ended up being her brother that turned her attention to math. Speaking to Clay Mathematics, she told the story of how she turned her focus to math.
“My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general. 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.”
Mirzakhani eventually made her way to Harvard, where she constantly talked about the education system in Iran.
What makes the award so unlikely is that back in 2010, there were only 9 percent tenure-track professors in mathematics held by women.
Today, women entering science and math have a role model to look up to. For the rest of us, we can congratulate a remarkable woman on her accomplishment. We may not understand the work she does, but we know she’s at the top of her profession.
Hopefully this will lead to more women jumping into STEM fields. Ingrid Daubechies applauded the win. “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.’”
I think we can all agree with that.