The Extraordinary Life of Maryam Mirzakhani, ‘Queen of Mathematics’

By Roshanak Asteraky

The pioneering mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani – the first woman and Iranian to be awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics’s highest honor – died on July 14 at the age of 40.

The Fields Medal

Nicknamed the “Queen of Mathematics,” Mirzakhani had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. By 2016, the cancer spread to her bones and liver. Maryam spent her last days at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California. People all around the world – inside but also outside the scientific community – are mourning the loss of this genius mathematician.

“Mirzakhani was one of the most prominent mathematicians in the world, even before receiving the Fields Medal,” said Ramin Takloo-Bighash, a professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mirzakhani was married to Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician who is currently an associate professor at Stanford University. They have a daughter named Anahita. Mirzakhani tried to obtain Iranian citizenship for her daughter without success. In her last will and testament, Mirzakhani has requested that her daughter be granted Iranian citizenship.

Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977 in Tehran, three years before the start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). From an early age, she was an enthusiastic reader of books, and aspired to become a writer. She enrolled at the Farzanegan School, part of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents.

Maryam was admitted to Iran’s Mathematical Olympiad team at the age of 16. She was the first female to receive the gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad for two consecutive years, scoring 41 and 42 out of a maximum of 42.

As a girl, Mirzakhani survived a brush with death. She was among a large group of students traveling from the city of Ahvaz to Tehran in February 1998 to take part in a university mathematics competition. The bus in which they were traveling crashed into a ravine, tragically killing six students who were members of the national Mathematical Olympiad.

After receiving her Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology in 1999, Mirzakhani went to the U.S. for postgraduate studies. She attained a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2004.

“It was immediately apparent that she had a great command of her field: Her Ph.D. thesis was revolutionary,” said Dr. Behrang Noohi, a professor of mathematics at Queen Mary University of London, who was a member of Iran’s Mathematical Olympiad team at the same time as Mirzakhani.

Maryam and daughter Anahita with Landon Clay after he presented the Research Award to her at the 2015 Clay Research Conference in Oxford, England.

In 2004, Mirzakhani became a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute and a professor at Princeton University. In 2008, she became a professor at Stanford University. She was awarded the Fields Medal in 2014 for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said of her distinction. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

Example of 3D Riemann surfaces.

Awarding her the medal, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) said: “She has a strong geometric intuition that allows her to grapple directly with the geometry of moduli space. Fluent in a remarkably diverse range of mathematical techniques and disparate mathematical cultures, she embodies a rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity.”

Mirzakhani’s death has revived a debate within Iran about matrilineal citizenship for children of mixed-nationality parentage. Under Iranian citizenship law (as laid out in Book 2 of the Civil Code, articles 976 through 991), children acquire citizenship through their fathers, but not their mothers. The law has posed serious problems to women whose husbands are foreign nationals. Iran has refused to change the citizenship law despite public pressure.

Under current Iranian legislation, a mother with a foreign spouse must secure a visa for her child before traveling to Iran. Also, children of Iranian women who marry Afghan nationals are not granted citizenship status, even though they were born in Iran and are living there. They are deprived of their civil rights.

According to Reza Shiran, a Majlis (Iranian Parliament) deputy from Mashhad, 60 deputies have introduced a single-emergency amendment to the citizenship law. The cultural committee of the Majlis approved the proposal on July 11. If ratified, it will grant citizenship to children whose fathers are foreign nationals. The Legal and Judicial Committee of the Majlis must pass the proposed amendment before it can be discussed in open session. If ratified, the bill will resolve what is a serious issue for a large number of Iranian women. And it may posthumously fulfill the wishes of one of the most prominent women in Iran’s history.