Women at the Top of the Field(s)

The Fields medal is awarded to highly promising mathematicians under the age of 40. It’s their version of the Nobel prize, or the Oscars.

Included in this year’s winners is Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford professor whose has a “reputation among mathematicians for tackling the most difficult questions in her field with dogged persistence.” Hard to believe it but Professor Mirzakhani is the first woman to win a Fields medal.


Growing up in Tehran she read lots of books, and thought she’d “do something great with her life – maybe become a writer.”  She was accepted into a gifted and talented middle school, but it wasn’t so easy.

She told an interviewer from the Simons Foundation that in 6th grade her math teacher didn’t think she was particularly talented, which undermined her confidence. At that age, “it’s so important what others see in you,” Mirzakhani said. “I lost my interest in math.”

The following year, Mirzakhani had a more encouraging teacher, however, and her performance improved enormously. “Starting from the second year, she was a star,” according to an old friend.

John Mighton was also told early on that he was not good at math. Once he figured out that he was, he went on to earn his Ph.D. AND develop the instructional materials that we’ll use at ICS in September. Much of John’s experience is about helping teachers build a positive classroom environment, like Maryam had in 7th grade.

For our kindergartners winning the Fields Medal will seem like it’s a million years away. But we’re going to start young and aim high. Inspired by a little girl who dressed up as a nurse and read lots of books, and was told she wasn’t very talented.

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