An Iranian-born Stanford University professor has become the first woman to win the Fields Medal—the most prestigious prize in mathematics, and one that the San Jose Mercury News describes as "math's Nobel Prize." Maryam Mirzakhani, 37, is one of four mathematicians under 40 being awarded the prize, which is given out every four years at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Becoming the first female winner in the prize's 80-year history "is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," she says in a press release from Stanford. She is the first Fields winner from the university since 1966.
Mirzakhani, who grew up in Iran but came to the US in 1999, lives in California with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. Her research focuses on "geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations," she tells the Guardian. Mathematics isn't for everybody, she says, but too many students don't give it a chance. "I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it," she says. "I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."