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First woman ever wins math's 'Nobel Prize'

By Elle Calderone, Medill News Service   |   Aug. 14, 2014 at 9:45 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, August 13 (UPI) -- A professor of mathematics at Stanford University has become the first woman in history to be awarded the Fields Medal in Mathematics.

Maryam Mirzakhani was presented with the award Wednesday for her contributions to geometry and dynamics, which is the study of how surfaces change over time. The medal winner was announced at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea.

"This is a great honor," Mirzakhani said in a news release issued by Stanford. "I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

Only about a quarter of bachelor's degrees in mathematics went to women in 2013, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The number has remained largely unchanged since 2009 when it was at 26 percent. The American Mathematical Society's annual survey found that women received 31.5 percent of new doctoral degrees from 2012 to 2013.

"The Association for Women in Mathematics hopes this notable achievement of a woman mathematician will inspire young women to pursue careers in mathematics," said Kristen Lauter, president-elect of the association and principal researcher at Microsoft Research.

"It's highly and well deserved that she has been recognized -- and long overdue that a woman in the field of mathematics has been recognized," she said through a spokeswoman.

Mirzakhani, who was born and raised in Tehran, Iran and got her doctorate in mathematics at Harvard University, was recognized for her understanding and research of symmetry of the surfaces of doughnuts and curved surfaces -- such as spheres. Her advanced studies have pulled from different mathematical fields, such as probability theory and algebraic geometry, according to the award's website.

Her research could have implications for other subject and research areas, such as theoretical physics -- how the universe came to exist -- or other types of mathematics, according to the Stanford release.

The Fields Medal, known formally as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, is presented by the International Mathematical Union annually during the congress.

The medal, named after Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, recognizes mathematicians under 40 years old. It was first awarded in 1924 because Fields felt that there should be an award for mathematics that was similar to the Nobel Prize, according to the Fields Institute. There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics.

Three other mathematicians were also awarded the Field Medal: Brazilian mathematician Artur Avila, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research; Manjul Bhargava, a mathematics professor at Princeton University; and Martin Hairer, a mathematics professor at Warwick University in the United Kingdom.

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