Born and raised in Iran, Mirzakhani studied at Harvard (ironically, President Larry Summers made his infamous comments about how women are naturally bad at math just a year after she finished her degree) and is now a professor at Stanford who works on ”the geometry of moduli space, a complex geometric and algebraic entity that might be described as a universe in which every point is itself a universe,” which I’m sure would sound even more impressive if I understood what it meant. At her girls high school in Tehran, she convinced her principal to start math problem-solving classes like the ones being taught at the boys high school so she could make Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team. She went on to be the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score in the competition.
As Quanta notes, the gender imbalance in Fields Medal recipients probably reflects both the general gender gap in mathematics as well as the fact that the award is for mathematicians younger than 40, “focusing on the very years during which many women dial back their careers to raise children.” But Mirzakhani expects many more women will follow her. “There are really many great female mathematicians doing great things,” she said.
Maya was pretty good at math but thinks this is an appropriate time to say, “Math is hard!”