With the fluid grace of Persian calligraphy, Maryam Mirzakhani's mathematical descriptions of the symmetry behind curved surfaces, from spheres to donuts, have helped earn the Iranian mathematician the 2014 Fields Medal – the first time a woman has won the prize in the 78 years it has been issued.
Dr. Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford University, was awarded the medal in a ceremony Wednesday at the quadrennial meeting of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea.
She is one of four recipients this year, including mathematicians from the US, Britain, and Brazil. But all eyes are on Mirzakhani, who has managed to blend mathematical brilliance in a male-dominated field with a parent's touch. She's married and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, which some advocates hail as an example that could draw more women to careers in math-intensive sciences.
One of the key challenges women face in pursuing careers in math-intensive fields, as in other fields, is figuring out how to integrate life inside and outside work, notes Shirley Malcom, who heads the education and human-resources program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington. The program is designed to improve the quality of and expand access to science and engineering education.
"I was really excited to see that in the biography that came out for this new Fields Medal, that they talk about a husband and a child. Yes!" Dr. Malcom says. Mirzakhani "has managed to do great mathematics" at the same time that she's building a life outside the halls of Stanford. "That will go a long way in showing other women that it's possible."
Mirzakhani herself was mindful her elevated role-model status.
"I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," she said in a prepared statement. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."
In many ways, her path from wanting, as a child, to become a writer to capturing what some have dubbed the Nobel prize of mathematics is replete with the kind of support and encouragement social scientists say is vital in sustaining interest in science and math among girls.
Mirzakhani was nearly two years old when the Iranian Revolution sent the Shah of Iran packing in January 1979. She finished elementary school just as the Iran-Iraq war ended. Her older brother piqued her interest in science and math, she said in an interview that appeared in the 2008 Annual Report of the Clay Mathematics Institute in Providence, R.I.
In elementary school through high school, male and female students attended separate schools.
"Our school principal was a strong-willed woman who was willing to go a long way to provide us with the same opportunities as the boys’ school," she recalled.
"I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it," she acknowledged. But that turned around fairly quickly.
She attended high school for gifted students, winning back-to-back gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1994 and '95. She captured the gold in '95 with a perfect score.
All the while, she recalled, she had the support of her family, a close friend, and a series of excellent teachers. That experience continued at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.
Then it was off to Harvard University for a PhD, where she landed Curtis McMullen – also a Fields Medal winner – as her adviser. The draw?
"I started attending the informal seminar organized by Curt McMullen," she recalled. "Most of the time I couldn't understand a word of what the speaker was saying. But I could appreciate some of the comments by Curt.... He could make things simple and elegant."
So she began to pepper him with questions, and found not merely a mentor, but a PhD adviser. She earned her doctorate in 2004.
In addition to the Fields Medal, she's also received an award in 2009 from the American Mathematical Society and earlier this year from the Clay Mathematics Institute, where from 2004 to 2008 she was a research fellow in addition to serving as an assistant professor at Princeton.
There is little question women have made significant progress in preparing for math-intensive careers. A 2010 study by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, co-directors of the Cornell Institute for Women and Science at Cornell University, noted that in 1960, only 5.9 percent of all math PhDs were awarded to women. By 2006, that figure had risen to 29.6 percent.
But while not everyone aims to become a professor, women fill only about 9 to 16 percent of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields at the nation's top 100 universities, the researchers say.
Expanding that number is important, adds the AAAS's Malcom, to provide encouragement and mentoring for women working toward math-intensive degrees. But "it's not just as matter of faculty who look like you being around you, it's also a matter of the messages you are receiving" from whoever the faculty may be "about your worth, your value, your ability to contribute."
Even social cues as children go through school don't seem to play a major role for or against science or math careers, at least through high school, the researchers noted. Girls take at least the same number of math and science courses as boys from kindergarten through high school, and generally earn the higher grades. And they become math majors in college in about the same numbers, the researchers note.
After weighing the evidence, the duo suggested that while other factors are involved, the most significant one could well be personal preference and choices, largely involving lifestyle and fertility.
Especially for women interested in achieving tenure as university professors, the study suggested, the tenure track is structured in such a way that they need to make their biggest intellectual contributions even as they are making "their greatest physical and emotional achievements, feats not expected of men."
That is why Mirzakhani's achievement is so remarkable, writes Dr. Williams in an e-mail.
"She can and will serve as an excellent role model for the many talented young women contemplating careers in math-intensive academic fields, but afraid that pursuing such careers will require them to choose between success in the intellectual and personal domains."