In 2014, at 37 years old, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman and the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal, a top mathematics prize awarded every four years to outstanding scholars under 40. Tragically, Mirzakhani passed away in 2017 after a long battle with breast cancer.

Born and raised in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, Mirzakhani graduated from Sharif University and earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, where she studied the geometry of hyperbolic surfaces like theoretical donut-shaped objects and other equally inscrutable topics.

When asked to describe her research in "accessible terms," Mirzakhani told The Guardian, "Most problems I work on are related to geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. In particular, I am interested in understanding hyperbolic surfaces. Sometimes properties of a fixed hyperbolic surface can be better understood by studying the moduli space that parameterises all hyperbolic structures on a given topological surface."

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Known for her patient and methodical approach to solving complex theoretical problems, Mirzakhani was blazing exciting new trails when her journey was cut short. Hopefully her barrier-busting win of the Fields Medal inspires the next generation of young female mathematicians.

"I don't think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don't give mathematics a real chance," Mirzakhani said in the same interview. "I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."

*Learn more about women in mathematics in "**Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics**" by Talithia Williams. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.*

Originally Published: Mar 28, 2019