Top female math scholar tells her story of achievement

Photo from Maryam Mirzakhan

Not long after Maryam Mirzakhani finished up a doctoral thesis in mathematics at Harvard University in 2004, president Lawrence Summers made his now infamous comments suggesting innate differences between men and women might explain the gender gap at the top levels of science and math.

On Tuesday, Mirzakhani became the first woman to be awarded a Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics — a recognition for her work on dynamical systems that change over time and geometric problems, such as understanding curved surfaces and doughnuts.


The Fields Medal is like the Nobel Prize, except perhaps even more competitive, since it is awarded once every four years and limited to researchers under the age of 40.

“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a statement from Stanford University, where she is now a professor. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

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For years after Summers apologized for his remarks, research has drawn into question the idea that innate biological differences can explain why so few women reach the highest tiers of math and science.

Universities have embarked on campaigns to increase the flexibility for women trying to earn tenure, since that clock is often ticking right when women are starting families. Efforts have been made at all levels of education to encourage girls to be interested in science, engineering, and math.

In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Mirzakhani told a story that illuminates just how much factors such as confidence and mentoring can matter, even when a person has an abundance of natural talent.


When she began middle school, Mirzakhani, who was born and raised in Iran, was taught by a teacher who did not think she had much aptitude for the subject.

“It’s so important what others see in you. I lost my interest in math,” Mirzakhani told Quanta.

The next year, however, she had a teacher who encouraged her and everything changed.

By the time she was in a girls’ high school, she became interested in international math competitions and asked the principal to provide the kinds of classes they had at the boys’ school, which would help train them for an international math competition.

The principal’s “mindset was very positive and upbeat — that ‘you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one,’ ” Mirzakhani told Quanta.

She made the Iranian math Olympiad team, winning gold medals in 1994 and 1995.

In 2008, a group of researchers began to try and understand the extreme ends of mathematical talent by studying the outcome of the Olympiads. If women simply did not possess the kind of creativity and intelligence that are needed in those competitions, it might bolster Summers’ argument.

‘This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.’

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What they found, however, was that culture, not ability, seemed to play a major role.

How else to explain that since 1974, the tiny country of Bulgaria had fielded nine competitors in the elite International Mathematical Olympiad while the United States had only three? Or that of the 11 women who had made it into the top-25 of the Putnam Mathematical Competition, three were from the United States and three were from Romania, a country with 1/15 the population?

When Germany was divided by the Berlin Wall, the two countries fielded separate teams. From 1977 until reunification, West Germany’s International Math Olympiad team fielded no girls, but the East German team had five.

“The problem with Larry Summers hypothesizing that there aren’t many women with intrinsic aptitude to excel at this very high level is . . . it’s not that they don’t have this level of intrinsic aptitude; it’s that in many countries women that have this intrinsic aptitude aren’t nurtured,” Janet Mertz, an author of the study and a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Globe in 2008.

The key difference, those researchers found, was a divide in which some countries supported and nurtured girls with mathematical talent and some did not.

In cultures where there was support, the extremes of math talent weren’t solely male: 12 percent to 24 percent of the children among the elite were girls. When that doesn’t happen, women are sorely underrepresented.

Mirzakhani should be known for her mathematical contributions, which are by all accounts remarkable, and not for her gender. Hopefully, her achievement heralds a cultural shift so that women will be given the support to apply their talent and make important discoveries.

“One would like to believe that after this, for anyone to say that girls can’t do math, they would have to be viewed as simply ignorant or bigoted,” Nancy Hopkins, an emerita biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an e-mail.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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