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Karen Telleen-Lawton: A Mathematical Woman

I loved math growing up. Theorems made intuitive sense to me, and I reveled in the pursuit of one right answer. But somewhere between calculus and linear equations, numbers disappeared, morphing into a confusion of Greek letters.

True mathematicians’ excitement begins at this theoretical level. One math whiz will long be recognized for the contributions she made to math and to women in science in her short life:

Maryam Mirzakhani Click to view larger
Maryam Mirzakhani

Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian-American who died of cancer this summer at age 40. She was the first and only woman to win the Fields Medal — the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

“What’s so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together disparate pieces,” said Steven Kerckhoff at the time of her Fields Medal award.

Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics including moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.

If these terms are undecipherable, as they are to me, you’ll appreciate knowing she did her best thinking while doodling on large sheets of paper. On the edges of the drawings her 6-year old daughter called her mother’s “paintings,” she would scribble formulas.

Mirzakhani solved two longstanding problems in her 2004 doctoral dissertation.

Resolving just one of these thorny problems would have made an amazing dissertation, but synthesizing and comparing the two into a thesis was described as “truly spectacular,” according to Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago.

Her findings were published in papers in each of the top three mathematics journals.

Mirzakhani said she enjoyed pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studied.

“You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” she told one reporter.

Practically minded folk could argue Mirzakhani’s theoretical work had no concrete value. Its impacts will be recognized in the years and decades to come when her insights are applied to engineering, material science, and the physics of how the universe came to exist.

In her early years, Mirzakhani was thought to have more drive than talent.

Her sixth-grade teacher in Iran discouraged her interest since she wasn’t at the top of the class. But in her all-girls high school, her principal allowed her to compete for Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad, the first girl to do so.

After college in Tehran, Mirzakhani attended Harvard University. There, Dr. Curtis McMullen lauded her work.

“Some scientists and mathematicians engage in a problem to go beyond what other people have done; they measure themselves against others," he said.

"Maryam was not like that. She would engage directly with the scientific challenge, with the mathematics, no matter how hard it was, and really go deep into the heart of the matter,” McMullen said.

After Harvard, Mirzakhani worked as an assistant professor at Princeton University. Then she was hired by Stanford University, where she met her husband, computer scientist Jan Vondrak.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Mirzakhani's death over the summer to the Stanford community.

“Maryam’s impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science," he said. "[She] was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path.”

Next time you face a challenge, go to the heart of it, engage it directly, and think of Maryam. Or follow her path, by loving the math.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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