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UN names Iran's late Mirzakhani among ‘7 women scientists who shaped world’

Illustration courtesy of Daria Koshkina, via UN Women

The United Nations (UN) has named the late Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani as one of seven women scientists “who have shaped our world.”

The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) anointed Mirzakhani, who passed away of cancer at age 40 in 2017, on Friday, the International Day of Women and Girls in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Although Mirzakhani passed away [of cancer] in 2017, her invaluable contributions to the field of mathematics endure, and her trailblazing career has paved the way forward for many women mathematicians to come,” UN Women said in a statement.

Mirzakhani, a leading scholar on the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces, became the first and to date only woman to win the most prestigious award in mathematics, the Fields Medal, in 2014.

The brilliant Iranian mathematician won the prize — considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics — “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces,” according to the award citation.

Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani talks at a press conference after the Fields Medal awards ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, on August 13, 2014. (Photo by AFP)

Mirzakhani, who was a Stanford University professor, once said of his research that the more she “spent time on mathematics, the more excited I became.” She also recalled loving “the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new, the feeling of being on top of a hill, and having a clear view.”

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation established a new award to honor Mirzakhani after her death. The 50,000-dollar Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize would be awarded to outstanding early career women scientists in the field of mathematics, according to the foundation.

UN Women also honored Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou, whose discovery of a medicine for malaria has saved millions of lives across the world. Tu and two of her colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015. She became the first Chinese Nobel laureate of this category and the first Chinese woman to receive a Nobel Prize in any category.

UN Women also named Kiara Nirghin, the South African winner of the 2016 Google Science Fair for creating a super absorbent polymer that can retain over 100 times its mass when she was only 19.

Katherine Johnson, 101 years old, was another mathematician honored by UN Women. An African-American NASA scientist, Johnson was one of NASA’s “human computers” whose calculations helped send American astronauts into orbit in the 1960s and the Moon in 1969.

Marie Curie, the Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who died in 1934, was also praised by the UN as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for her work on modern nuclear science.

Marcia Barbosa, a Brazilian physicist known for her research on the complex structures of the water molecule, was another female scientist named among the top seven. Barbosa was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science in 2013.

Segenet Kelemu, a 62-year-old Ethiopian molecular plant pathologist whose cutting-edge research is dedicated to helping the world’s smallholder farmers grow more food and rise out of poverty, was also honored.

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