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First Iranian woman elected to US National Academy of Sciences

Renowned Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first Iranian woman elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) after she set the record of the first ever woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, also known as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

The 39-year-old mathematician, currently a professor at Stanford University, was recently elected to NAS, by its current members, in recognition of her “distinguished and continuing achievement in original research.”

With past honorees including renowned physicist Albert Einstein, and inventors Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell, being a member of the organization is considered to be as one of the highest achievements for scientists in the United States.

Mirzakhani, along with 83 other new members and 21 foreign associates from 14 countries, will be formally inducted next April in Washington DC. 

The organization, along with its two sister organizations, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) serve pro bono as “advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.”

Born in 1977 in Tehran, Mirzakhani was raised in the Iranian capital. As a brilliant teenager, she won gold medals in both the International Mathematical Olympiad (Hong Kong 1994), in which she scored 41 out of 42 points, and the International Mathematical Olympiad (Canada 1995) with a perfect score of 42 out of 42 points, ranking her first jointly with 14 other participants.

The math genius received her Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Iran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology in 1999. She later went to the US to further her education, earning a PhD degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 2004.

She became full professor of mathematics at the age of 31 in 2008 at Stanford University where she is currently lecturing.

Mirzakhani received Blumenthal Award from the American Mathematical Society in 2009. She was also awarded the 2013 biennial Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics by the American Mathematical Society, and garnered the 2014 Clay Research Award from the Clay Mathematics Institute.

But the most important of all her awards is the 2014 Fields Medal that she won in recognition of her contributions to the understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces. This medal, commonly viewed as the highest honor a mathematician can receive, is given every four years to mathematicians under the age of 40, by the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU).

Mirzakhani’s research interests mainly include Teichmüller theory and ergodic theory. About her mathematical approach to developing new proofs, she has said “it is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

Mirzakhani is married to Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist who works at IBM Almaden Research Center. They have a daughter named Anahita.

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