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First Female Winner of the Fields Medal is an Iranian Mathematician

First Female Winner of the Fields Medal is an Iranian Mathematician
Bernadine Racoma

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani from Stanford University is the first female to ever win the Fields Medal, which is considered the Nobel Prize in mathematics. For the past 78 years, there had been 52 medalists, all of them males. She and three other awardees received their medals in Seoul Wednesday morning from South Korean President Park Geun-Hye at the opening of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul. The Congress will be from August 13 to 21, 2014.

The medal winners

This is a celebration for young female scientists and mathematicians, said Professor Mirzakhani, when the announcement was released by Stanford University on Tuesday. It is a great encouragement for female mathematicians. Duke University mathematics professor Ingrid Daubechies, who is also the head of the International Mathematical Union, said that the news is a great joy. She added that math done by a man or a woman has no difference and that the decision of the Fields Medal committee has always been based on the candidate’s results.

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran and has been a Stanford professor since 2008. Since there is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics, this is the closest equivalent to the prestigious prize. The Fields Medal can be awarded to several recipients at once and this year, there are three other winners – Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick, Princeton University’s Manjul Bhargave and Artur Avila of the National Center for Scientific Research in France and the National Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in Brazil.

Mathematical research

According to Curtis T. McMullen, the doctoral adviser of Professor Mirzakhani and also a professor at Harvard, much of her research is on the behavior of dynamical systems where there is no exact mathematical solution. What she discovered was that the dynamical orbits are constricted to follow the laws of algebra. These dynamical systems identify those surfaces that have many handles, such as pretzels, whose shape evolve from the twisting and the stretching they receive, which are precise.

The Fields Medal

Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields conceived the Fields Medal, officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, to recognize the work that had already been done and to encourage its further achievement. He also designed the medal himself. It is usually awarded to mathematicians who are age 40 or younger, based on the judges’ interpretation of the terms of the trust – an award given for outstanding contributions in mathematics by young scientists. The first award was given in 1936. In 2006, the prize money was 15,000 Canadian dollars.

Disparity in the field of mathematics

Dr. McCullen, who was also a Fields Medal winner, did not want to discuss why it took more than 70 years for women to be recognized in the field of mathematics. He would rather look at this as a positive trend not only in science but also in society. Women have reached parity in several academic fields but mathematics is still male-dominated, with 70% of the doctoral degrees earned by males. Males also dominated in other prestigious math awards. The 14 recipients of the Abel Prize, and the accompanying monetary award of $1 million, given by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, were all males. The same is true with Israel’s annual Wolf Prize in Mathematics, which had honored more than 50 males since 1978.

Image credit: Maryam Mirzakhani taken by Ehsan Tabari under Public Domain.

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