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Submission + - Fields Medal Winner Maryam Mirzakhani Dies at Age 40 after battling cancer (

McGruber writes: Stanford mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, died July 15 after a long battle with cancer. Mirzakhani was 40 years old.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and – by her own estimation – was fortunate to come of age after the Iran-Iraq war when the political, social and economic environment had stabilized enough that she could focus on her studies. She dreamed of becoming a writer, but mathematics eventually swept her away. She attended an all-girls high school in Tehran, led by a principal unbowed by the fact that no girl had ever competed for Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team. Mirzakhani first gained international recognition during the 1994 and 1995 competitions. In 1994, she earned a gold medal. In 1995, she notched a perfect score and two gold medals.

After graduating college at Sharif University in Tehran, she headed to graduate school at Harvard University, where she was guided by Curtis McMullen, a fellow Fields Medal winner. At Harvard, Mirzakhani was distinguished by her determination and relentless questioning, despite the language barrier. She peppered her professors with questions in English. She jotted her notes in Farsi.

McMullen described Mirzakhani as filled with “fearless ambition.” Her 2004 dissertation was a masterpiece. In it, she solved two longstanding problems. Either solution would have been newsworthy in its own right, according to Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, but then Mirzakhani connected the two into a thesis described as “truly spectacular.” It yielded papers in each of the top three mathematics journals. “The majority of mathematicians will never produce something as good,” Farb said at the time. “And that’s what she did in her thesis.”

In recent years, she collaborated with Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago to answer a mathematical challenge that physicists have struggled with for a century: the trajectory of a billiard ball around a polygonal table. That investigation into this seemingly simple action led to a 200-page paper which, when it was published in 2013, was hailed as “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics and “a titanic work.” “You’re torturing yourself along the way,” she would offer, “but life isn’t supposed to be easy.”

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years during the opening ceremony of the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM). It recognizes outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement. Two to four medals are awarded to mathematicians who have to be of age less than forty years on January 1 of the Congress year (

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Fields Medal Winner Maryam Mirzakhani Dies at Age 40 after battling cancer

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