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.
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 more.”
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, Anahita.
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 mathematics.”
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 incorrect.
“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.
“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.”