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​Brilliant Female Mathematicians You’ve Never Heard Of

Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal yesterday, the highest prize a mathematician can win.
August 13, 2014, 8:05pm
Fields Medal winner Maryam Mirzakhani. Image:

In a historic moment yesterday, Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the highest prize a mathematician can win, for making "striking and highly original contributions to geometry and dynamical systems."

Her doctorate advisor and Harvard professor Curtis T. McMullen put her findings in (somewhat) laymen's terms, telling the New York Times these dynamical systems describe "surfaces with many handles, like pretzels" and Mirzakhani discovered that "in another regime the dynamical orbits are tightly constrained to follow algebraic laws." (I understand the like pretzels part.)


In a press release, Mirzahkani said she would be happy if her win "encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," acknowledging the gender gap still plaguing her field.

Mathematics, like most sciences, are still dominated by men. Around 75 percent of of doctoral degrees in math and computer science in the US go to men. A 2009 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) looking into the gender gap in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics fields found that, when comparing the numbers of entrance exams and degrees awarded, gender ratios were most equal amongst students pursuing degrees in biology and worst amongst those in computer sciences, the ratios regarding mathematics and calculus fell somewhere in the middle.

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The workforce is no better: While in most STEM fields there's been at least a steady improvement in representation since the 1960s, that same AAUW study found that in math and computer science occupations, the numbers dropped from 1990 to 2000—there were even less women, proportionally, working in the field in 2000 than there were in 1990.

Nevertheless, women like Mirzakhani have made crucial achievements in mathematics throughout the years. Here is a short history.

Hypatia (360-415 AD)

Image:  Wikimedia Commons

The fourth-century Greek mathematician and scholar Hypatia taught philosophy and astronomy at the Platonist school at Alexandria. Although many of the details of her life are merely speculation (allegedly she rejected a suitor her with menstrual rags), what can be confirmed is that she was the leading mathematician of her era and the last major mathematician of the Alexandrian tradition. She died at the hands of a Christian mob.


Maria Agnesi (1718-1799)

Milan-born Maria Agnesi is best-known for her contributions to differential and integral calculus and was a professor at the University of Bologna. The "Witch of Agnesi" refers to a curve that can be expressed in an algebraic equation. Although Agnesi wasn't the first to study or name the curve, she wrote about it in her most famous treatise, and the original Italian name, "versiera," meaning "Devil" or "adversary of God," was colorfully translated into English.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891)

Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in Russia and studied in Berlin under the "father of modern analysis" Karl Weierstress. Her interest in math came early. She claimed, as a child, to have studied her father's old calculus notes that were pasted to the wall of her nursery in lieu of wallpaper. Among her numerous accomplishments—she was the first woman in modern Europe to gain a doctorate in math, the first female professor in Northern Europe, she discovered one of the few known examples of integrable body motion, and she made valuable contributions to partial different equations—she was an advocate of women's rights.

Mildred Sanderson (1889-1914)

Mildred Sanderson was born in Massachusetts and obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her thesis established a correspondence between modular and formal invariants, and her contribution is considered a classic of the subject. She died of tuberculosis the next year at the age of 25.


Julia Robinson (1919-1985)

Julia Robinson was an American mathematician who focused her career on decision problems. Her most famous contribution was disproving Hilbert's tenth problem—it was an effort that took decades and several minds and was a rare point of cooperation between American and Soviet mathematicians during the height of the Cold War. Robinson was also the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the first female president of the American Mathematical Society, and first female mathematician awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924-present)

Washington-born Evelyn Granville was the second African-American woman to earn her Ph.D. in Mathematics. She studied functional analysis at Yale University, and went on to teach at Fisk University, a college for black students in Tennessee. Years later she found her application to teach at a college in New York had been rejected due to discrimination; one faculty member claimed it was because of her race, another claimed it was because she was a woman. In spite of all the prejudice, Granville worked at IBM, the US Space Technology Laboratories, and taught at several colleges and universities.

Daina Taimina (1954-present)

Daina Taimina received her doctorate in mathematics from University of Latvia where she taught for 20 years before joining the Cornell Math Department in 1996. Shortly after, she attended a geometry workshop where William Thurston was presenting fragile paper models of hyperbolic planes, or non-Euclidean geometry. Taimina got the idea to crochet more durable models of these parabolic shapes. Her crocheted work has been included in many collections including the Smithsonian's and she became the first woman to earn the Euler Prize for her mathematical books for hers Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes.