The brilliant Persian American Mathematician, and Stanford professor, Maryam Mirzakhani lost her battle to cancer earlier in July. This was Maryam’s second bout with the virulent breast cancer that took her life, the first had occurred back in 2014 during the same period when the International Mathematical Union (IMU) named her as one of the 2014 Fields medal winners for what they categorized as her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Reimann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. Considered the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields medal’s closest equivalent is the Nobel prize. The humble mathematician had done it, she had single-handedly raised the profile of women and minorities in mathematics overnight. She had broken through the glass ceiling, becoming the first woman, and the first person of Persian descent to win the prize since it’s inception in 1936. Mirzakhani who had professed a love for writing from an early age, discovered mathematics as a second passion, a challenge she enjoyed, and proved brilliant at mastering.
Much like other Iranian women, Mirzakhani had to overcome significant challenges in an Iran transformed into a fearsome theocracy by the 1979 Islamic revolution. She was a mere toddler when the new fundamentalist hold on the country pushed back the rights of women, undoing the significant reforms of the late shah and his father to advance the plight of Iranian women, religious minorities, and effectively usher in the golden age of Iranian Jewry and the country’s secular elite. Overnight Iran had transformed into a theocracy where women, secular intellectuals and religious minorities were now effectively second class citizens – marginalized. Yet despite the fundamentalists repeated attempts to put religion above a secular education, Iran’s teachers, mostly the quiet secularists and devout intellectuals were determined to move the country’s potential forward even within a framework of religious limitations. This was the silent resistance that kept girls in school and focused on education, and planted the seeds of ambition. The very seeds that would grow into disarming swords, enabling women like Mirzakhani to overcome the significant adversity of growing up female in a religious theocracy, and effectively navigating their way towards securing their ambition. Mirzakhani who studied at a gifted all girls school in Tehran eventually entered Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s MIT equivalent, won gold twice at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Toronto and eventually immigrated to the U.S. and obtained her PhD at Harvard University in 2004.
Mirzakhani worked on a variety of problems related to hyperbolic geometry which describes curved surfaces. Her specialization in theoretical mathematics which is deeply complex included moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry according to Stanford where she had taught as professor for the past eight years. What is most fascinating is that the surfaces Mirzakhani studied, often described as donut like with multiple holes did not have real world constraints. Difficult to visualize, but arguably, also deeply reflective of the way Iranian children, particularly young girls were taught early in post revolutionary times to study, to dream without considering the limiting constraints of the fundamentalist world. Despite the heavy paternal hand of the regime that aimed to make women second class citizens in Iran, most teachers quietly discarded gender stereotypes, proving themselves as the heroes of the resistance.
Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford described Mirzakhani as “not only a brilliant and fearless researcher, but she [Maryam] embodied what being a mathematician or scientist is all about: the attempt to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved before, or to understand something that hadn’t been understood before. This, he emphasized “is driven by a deep intellectual curiosity” — one innate to Mirzakhani, further instilled by the virtues of the Iranian resistance, and a pivotal reminder to women and minorities everywhere that you too can achieve your dreams through persistence, and constant intellectual dedication to overcome any obstacle in your way.