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After 78 Years, A First: Math Prize Celebrates Work Of A Woman


Today, the International Mathematical Union presented four researches with the Fields Medal. The Fields is considered to be the Nobel Prize in mathematics and among the winners, the first woman in the prize's 78-year history. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel brings us her story and what it might mean for the future of mathematics.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Maryam Mirzakhani is a professor at Stanford University. She was born in Tehran in 1977. Early on, she thought she might be a writer, but then she discovered mathematics. In this video released with the prize, she describes how she fell in love with 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.

BRUMFIEL: She also became really good at it. While still in Iran, she won two gold medals at International Math Olympiads. She went on to Harvard, where her graduate thesis was revolutionary, according to Bill Goldman, a mathematician at the University of Maryland.

BILL GOLDMAN: It used all kinds of different ideas from different areas of mathematics in a very clever way to give new proofs of old results, as well as new results.

BRUMFIEL: Goldman says she's kept innovating ever since. She works on the geometry of objects with very unusual shapes. They can look something like pretzels. Despite the abstract nature of that work, he says it does get used a lot.

GOLDMAN: These ideas are related to robotics, computer vision, certainly computer graphics. They really are quite practical.

BRUMFIEL: Goldman isn't surprised that Mirzakhani won.

GOLDMAN: I had been hearing rumors over the last few months and maybe the last year that she was a serious contender for the Fields Medal.

BRUMFIEL: Female mathematicians are excited about Mirzakhani's win.

JUDY WALKER: I'm actually thrilled to say that a woman has won the Fields Medal. There have certainly, in my opinion, been women deserving of it in the past.

BRUMFIEL: Judy Walker chairs the mathematics department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Only a third of PhDs in math are awarded to women. And Walker says that's in part because some men in the field have not always been welcoming.

WALKER: I think most women my age or older and even a little bit younger have at least one war story to tell you.

BRUMFIEL: But she says things are changing and Mirzakhani's win is yet another sign that women are increasingly making their way to the top of the field. In the future, Walker thinks we're likely to see more female mathematicians winning the big prizes. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 12, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web introduction to this story incorrectly gave Maryam Mirzakhani's last name as Mirakahni.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.