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Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani


The first woman to win what's considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics, the Fields Medal, died Saturday after battling breast cancer. She was only 40 years old. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has this remembrance.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Maryam Mirzakhani wanted to be a writer when she was growing up in Iran. In a video release when she won the Fields Medal in 2014, she said she wasn't always excited about math.


MARYAM MIRZAKHANI: I got excited about it maybe just as a challenge. But then I realized that it's really nice, and I enjoy it.

WANG: And she ended up winning gold medals at two International Math Olympiads as the first girl to join Iran's team. She later earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and eventually became a professor at Stanford. Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, says her work on curved surfaces has made major contributions to geometry.

BENSON FARB: She really raised it to a completely different level. It's like people were building houses. And then her adviser had a major breakthrough and was able to build a 10-story building. She built the Sears Tower.

WANG: Mirzakhani worked on math problems like an artist scribbling formulas around her doodles, a process her young daughter once described as painting, according to an obituary put out by Stanford. All that art paid off when she drew international attention for winning the Fields Medal.

AMI RADUNSKAYA: If I could've bought a Maryam Mirzakhani T-shirt, I would have that day (laughter).

WANG: Ami Radunskaya is a mathematician at Pomona College in California and the president of the Association for Women in Mathematics. She says she hopes Mirzakhani's self-confidence and grit will continue to inspire more girls and young women to get into math.

RADUNSKAYA: She's known for saying, give me the hardest problem in this field and then thinking about it and sticking with it until she finishes.

WANG: Mirzakhani's death at just 40 years old makes Radunskaya wonder what works she left unfinished. It's incalculable, Radunskaya says, what else she might have accomplished. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.