Maryam Mirzakhani, the Stanford University mathematician who was the only woman to win the Fields Medal, died Saturday (July 15) of breast cancer at age 40.
The Stanford News reported that Mirzakhani, who was born in Iran, used theoretical mathematics to explore the geometric complexities of curved surfaces—a field of study that has implications on quantum-field theory, engineering and material sciences, and the study of prime numbers and cryptography.
Although those implications are foreign to many of us, Mirzakhani’s pursuit of them—and the poetic way in which she described her process—made her a role model, as Quartz’s Zach Wener-Fligner wrote when she won the Fields Medal in 2014:
Mirzakhani is a welcome inspiration for girls and young women enticed by the more rigorous, theoretical side of STEM. She’s an academic counterpart to successful tech businesswomen like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer. Like them, Mirzakhani has balanced motherhood with a successful career—she has a three-year-old daughter who often exclaims that “Mommy is painting again!” when Mirzakhani scribbles mathematical doodles.
In the video below, Mirzakhani says before she wanted to be a mathematician, she had hoped to be a writer.
“I got excited about [math] maybe, just as a challenge,” she said.
“You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” Mirzakhani once told a reporter. She also compared the challenge of developing proofs to “being lost in a jungle.”
“Use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks,” she said, “and with some luck you might find a way out.”