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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Colleagues, friends and family remember Maryam Mirzakhani
Posted: Oct 27, 2017 7:40 PM
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From Stanford / News, Monday, October 23, 2017.
Colleagues, friends and family gather to remember
Stanford Professor Maryam Mirzakhani

Hundreds of people gathered at Cemex Auditorium
on Saturday to honor mathematics Professor Maryam
Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female
winner of the Fields Medal, who died in July.

By Amy Adams

With heartfelt words, music and a reading from
the Quran, on Saturday members of the Stanford
community and invited guests remembered the life
of Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, who died of
breast cancer in July at the age of 40.

Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical
mathematics, and won the prestigious Fields Medal
for her work in 2014. She is to-date the only
woman to win the award, which is considered the
mathematics equivalent to the Nobel prize.

People remembered Mirzakhani as being fearlessly
ambitious in her work, for her brilliance in how
she tackled problems and for her humility.

"It is still very hard to imagine that someone of
her extraordinary energy, determination and
brilliance could be taken away from us at such a
young age," said Eleny Ionel, professor and chair
of the mathematics department at Stanford. "Her
passion for mathematics has touched so many lives
and will continue to be an inspiration for many

Fierce intelligence

Mirzakhani grew up in Tehran, Iran, where she was
the first girl to compete on Iran's International
Mathematical Olympiad team. She left Iran to
attend graduate school at Harvard and joined
Stanford's mathematics department in 2008. She
was married to Jan Vondrák and had a daughter,
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Two large photos of Maryam
Mirzakhani with a flower arrangement on stage.
Colleagues, friends and family remembered
Professor Maryam Mirzakhani for her humility as
well as her passion for her work and her family.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Stanford Video)
As a teenager in Iran, Mirzakhani's intelligence
and determination made her stand out. Kasra Rafi,
now a professor of mathematics at the University
of Toronto, recalled instructing Mirzakhani at a
camp for the math Olympiad. "The challenge was to
find something she could not do," he told the
capacity crowd in Cemex Auditorium. He learned
new areas of math by giving her problems then
studying to understand her solutions.

Once at Harvard, her thesis adviser,
mathematician Curtis McMullen, remembered her as
an "unpretentious and open person who combined
modesty with fearless ambition when it comes to

He went on to describe her work by invoking a
billiards table folding in on itself and wrapping
into a loop like a doughnut, and billiard balls
ricocheting off the unusual surfaces. "The story
of her thesis began with curves on a doughnut and
ended with a new perspective on a central problem
in mathematical physics. She became a major
player on the mathematical stage," he said.

That thesis drew attention to Mirzakhani and
earned her a faculty position at Princeton, but
Rafi said she didn't like the expectation of
genius and worried that her work might be proven

"She faced all the same challenges as the rest of
us but she moved through them much, much more
quickly," he said.

Her colleague in the mathematics department at
Stanford, Persi Diaconis, described her more
recent work with even more unusual, abstract
shapes, beyond what anybody could imagine.
"That's the world Maryam lived in," he said.

Strong and humble

Mirzakhani's friends described her as strong,
modest and passionately interested in math. Her
friend of 29 years, Roya Beheshti, an associate
professor of mathematics at Washington
University, met Mizarkhani in the library while
in middle school. They went to university
together and then to graduate school.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: At the memorial event, Jan
Vondrák spoke of his late wife's drive for
excellence. (Image credit: Courtesy of Stanford
"She was so strong it always felt empowering to
be with her," Beheshti said. "It felt good to sit
with her and talk about math."

When she won the Fields Medal in 2014, Mirzakhani
told her husband that things were going to get
crazy. Amidst the media attention, she kept her
focus on what was important to her - math and her
family. She avoided attention, and tried to
sidestep even departmental recognition. When the
department was finally able to celebrate her win,
Mirzakhani said there were so many other
deserving people who should have won instead.
"For once there was something we knew that Maryam
did not," Ionel said. Her colleagues knew she
deserved the honor.

Her ability to distinguish what was important to
her is something Alex Wright, a postdoctoral
scholar remembered in her advice to him. "Know
what you want and don't get distracted," she had
told him. Even in her final year, she made time
for colleagues and long conversations about math
and family.

"I want to remember the beauty and power of her
math and the force of her personality that could
convince me even when she was in pain to smile,"
Wright said.

Mirzakhani's sister Leila described a happy
childhood with strong parents who expected the
best of their children. "I'm happy she used the
best of herself," she said. "I admire her for
setting boundaries for her family privacy. She
had a beautiful mind and a great soul."

That drive for excellence, rather than her
mathematics itself, is how Vondrák said she
should be remembered as a role model. He said
girls from around the world would email
Mirzakhani, asking how she had achieved what she
did. "I want to say to the young people, she was
a role model but I don't think it means you
should try to be like her," he said. "You have to
find your own path. You have to find what you
love. You have to find what is meaningful to you
and if you do that you will make Maryam happy."

Although Mirzakhani is remembered best for her
mathematical work, Vondrák described her
athleticism - she could still swim faster than
him months before her death and had hoped to run
a marathon - and her interest in people. She
liked to listen to the public radio show This
American Life. "She loved stories about people
who were different," he said.

Even with cancer, Mirzakhani felt lucky. She
would say that she was born into a loving family
and with a good mind, and not all people had that.

"She said don't be too quick to cry for me,"
Vondrák said. "There's a lot of trouble in the
world. Cry for those who are close to you and who
you can help."

A Tribute to Maryam Mirzakhani ANS American
Mathematical Society [SEE

"When I woke up on July 15 and learned that
Maryam Mirzakhani had died, I felt as though I
had been punched in the gut. Maryam was an
extraordinarily talented and accomplished young
mathematician who was thrust into the limelight
when she received the Fields Medal in 2014. After
breaking the glass ceiling as the first female
Medalist, she accepted with grace her role as a
symbol for women's achievement. An
Iranian--American, she served also as a reminder
of the international character of the
mathematical enterprise. Maryam Mirzakhani left
us in the prime of her professional life. Her
passing is a great loss to the mathematical
---AMS President Kenneth A. Ribet

((Photo: Stanford University.)) [SEE

Maryam Mirzakhani, May 3, 1977 - July 14, 2017

Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win a Fields
Medal, died on July 14 at the age of 40.
Mirzakhani was a professor at Stanford University
and a highly original mathematician who made a
host of striking contributions to geometry and
dynamical systems. Her work bridges several
mathematical disciplines---including hyperbolic
geometry, complex analysis, topology, and
dynamics---and in return deeply influenced them

Tributes and obituaries

The following is just small sample of the
tributes to and obituaries of Maryam Mirzakhani
from around the world:

. "Colleagues, friends and family gather to
remember Stanford Professor Maryam Mirzakhani,"
by Amy Adams, Stanford News, October 23, 2017
..."Stanford University commemorates Maryam
Mirzakhani," Tehran Times, October 22, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)," by Kasra Rafi, Nature, September 7, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)," by Alex Wright, Science, August 25, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani, Only Woman to Win a Fields
Medal, Dies at 40," by Kenneth Chang, The New
York Times, July 16, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani's Pioneering Mathematical
Legacy," by Siobhan Roberts, The New Yorker, July
17, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani, Stanford mathematician and
Fields Medal winner, dies," by Andrew Myers and
Bjorn Carey, Stanford University News, July 15,
. "The Beautiful Mathematical Explorations of
Maryam Mirzakhani," by Moira Chas, Quanta
Magazine, July 24, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win maths'
Fields Medal, dies," BBC News, July 15, 2017
. "Dignitaries grieve death of math genius
Maryam Mirzakhani," Tehran Times, July 15, 2017
. "Maryam Mirzakhani, A Candle Illuminating The
Dark," by Paul Halpern, Forbes, August 1, 2017
. A tribute on the House floor by U.S. Rep.
Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a PhD mathematician
Maryam Mirzakhani, 1977-2017, American Mathematical Society, July 18, 2017
. A search for her name brings up many more
pieces in national and local news media,
scientific journals, and general interest
publications such as The Boston Globe, PBS, Elle
Magazine, People, The Washington Post, Scientific
American, Wired, CNN, The Mercury News, India
Times, Huffington Post, International Business
Times, The Guardian, and Los Angeles Times.

Here is a wonderful video of Maryam "in her own
words": SEE --
SCROLL DOWN (Video produced by the
International Mathematical Union and the Simons

About her work

When Maryam Mirzhakhani was awarded the Fields
Medal in 2014 the world was captivated. The news
media and mathematical community celebrated her
achievements, which brought both her and her
mathematics into the spotlight.

. "A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces,"
by Erica Klarreich. Quanta Magazine, August 12,
. "The work of Maryam Mirzakhani," by Curtis
McMullen (her PhD advisor). August 18, 2014
. "After 78 Years, A First: Math Prize Celebrates
Work Of a Woman," by Geoff Brumfiel (with Bob
Goldman, University of Maryland, and Judy Walker,
University of Nebraska), NPR--All Things
Considered, August 13, 2014
. "The work of Maryam Mirzakhani." International
Mathematical Union press release, 2014
. "The Work of the 2014 Fields Medalists," by
Welington de Melo, Bjorn Poonen, Jeremy Quastel,
and Anton Zorich. Notices of the American
Mathematical Society, December 2015 (the portion
of the article on Mirzakhani's work, written by
Zorich, begins on page 1345)

Read two AMS blog posts about Maryam Mirzakhani:

. A Beyond Reviews post, "Maryam Mirzakhani," by
Ed Dunne (Mathematical Reviews Executive Editor)
that highlights some MathSciNet reviews of her
. An inclusion/exclusion post, "Remembering
Maryam Mirzakhani," by Adriana Salerno (Bates
College) that features "thoughts from women
mathematicians expressing how Maryam Mirzakhani
changed the mathematical world for them, how she
influenced them, and how this influence will live
See many comments at the website:
Jerry P. Becker
Department of Curriculum & Instruction
College of Education and Human Services
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
625 Wham Drive / MC 4610
Carbondale, Illinois 62901

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