Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University made history in 2014, becoming the first woman to win the Fields Medal in the 78-year history of the award. The honor, bestowed every four years to two to four mathematics researchers under the age of 40, is often thought of as the Nobel Prize for math.
According to the International Mathematical Union, the 37-year-old, Iranian-born Mirzakhani won “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”
Mirzakhani realizes that her unprecedented achievement transcends mathematics research. “This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani, quoted by Stanford News, said. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Even though, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation report, female students take precalculus/analysis and algebra II at higher rates than male students during their K-12 education, they lose that ground during their undergraduate education, earning only 43.1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics. These disparities become even greater when students’ racial and socioeconomic statuses are taken into account.
Mirzakhani’s accomplishment is good news for educators, providing them with an example of a mathematics trailblazer to inspire students from underrepresented groups. While she is the latest to break through a long-preserved mathematics glass ceiling, Mirzakhani certainly is not the first.
One of the women benefitting from Mirzakhani’s work is MacArthur Prize winner and physicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala of MIT. She and her team design experiments to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time known as gravitational waves. See her in Physics for the 21st Century, “Gravity.”
Sophie Germain (1776-1831) didn’t let the École Polytechnique’s policy against admitting women stop her from pursuing an education. Though she began her educational career submitting papers under the false name Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc, Germain gained the esteem and mentorship of prominent mathematicians and became well known for her work in elasticity theory and number theory. In number theory, a prime number (p) is a Sophie Germain prime if 2p + 1 is also prime. Explore the basics of prime numbers and number theory in Learning Math, session 6, “Number Theory.”
While the name Albert Einstein is synonymous with mathematical genius, fewer people have heard of Emmy Noether, a mathematician whom Einstein himself once called “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
Like many historic female mathematicians, Noether encountered unjust obstacles throughout her distinguished career. The University of Erlangen in Bavaria, Germany prevented her from fully participating in classes, allowing her to audit them instead. Despite her brilliance and the respect she garnered from her contemporaries, Noether spent years teaching without pay.
While Noether was widely recognized for her accomplishments by the early 1930s, in 1933 Germany’s Nazi government forced all Jews out of all government positions. Noether fled Germany for the safety of the United States and a position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, though she died just two years later at the age of 53.
Dorothy Wallace, a content advisor for Mathematics Illuminated (units 6 and 10) and professor at Dartmouth College, is an accomplished mathematician and educator. Dr. Wallace contributed to the Mathematics Across the Curriculum project. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, MATC aims to integrate math throughout the undergraduate curriculum using interdisciplinary courses and materials. Her writing and editing credits include Numeracy!, the ejournal of the National Numeracy Network and The Bell that Rings Light (World Scientific Press).
Another branch of mathematics, statistics, is used by computational geneticist Dr. Pardis Sabeti at Harvard. She has developed algorithms to detect the genetic signatures of adaptation in humans and microbial organisms. Learn about her work with West Africans who are vulnerable to deadly Lassa fever in Against All Odds: Inside Statistics, “Inference for Two-Way Tables.”
From the ancient Greek philosopher Hypatia to Mirzakhani, there are many historical and contemporary examples of women in mathematics to encourage female students interested in pursuing a career in the field.
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