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World’s first female winner of Fields Medal

Updated August. 14, 2014 04:19


Four winners of this year’s Fields Medal including Maryam Mirzakhani (36), a female professor of Stanford University in the U.S., have been announced at the International Congress of Mathematicians that opened on Wednesday. The tall barrier for women to the honor, which was dubbed “Men’s Club,” has thus been dismantled for the first time since the instatement of the prestigious award in 1936. The Fields Medal is presented by the president of the host country for the mathematicians’ congress, and President Park Geun-hye awarded the prize as the first female Korean head of state, drawing all the more attention. Mirzakhani, a native of Iran, is also famous for her charming appearance with short hair and blue eyes.

Mirzakhani has been credited for reinterpreting "Moduli spaces” discovered by Edward Witten (winner of the 1990 Fields Medal), the authority of the "string theory" in theoretical physics. Iran, her motherland, was a mathematics stronghold when it was Persia in the past. Mathematical terms such as algorithm and algebra were initiated by Persian mathematician Al` Khwarizmi. Time-honored tradition of Persian mathematics that survived for generations has blossomed by a female mathematician in the 21st Century.

Female students are generally considered to be inferior to male students in math and science performance. The result of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2012, which was conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also suggested that Korean female students’ math score was 18 points lower on average than their male counterparts. The situation is largely similar in other countries. Differences in the brain and genetic factors between men and women cannot be disregarded, but some studies have suggested teachers and family members’ lower expectation for women that “women are poor in mathematics” affects females’ math performance.

A growing number of female mathematicians are making headway in Korea, a backwater of the Fields Medal. Among students of Grigoriy A. Margulis, mathematics professor at Yale University who was the winner of the 1978 Fields Medal, is Professor Oh Hee who became the first female tenure professor at Yale’s mathematics department last year. Along with Margulis, Oh gave a lecture as an invited speaker at the 2010 International Congress of Mathematicians in India. She boasts capability on par with Mirzakhani, but was regrettably disqualified due to the age limit of 40. Other promising Korean female mathematicians include Choi Seo-hyeon (31), who received the gold medal at the Mathematics Olympiad for two consecutive years, and Lim Mi-kyung (39), KAIST professor who is drawing attention in partial differential equation. It is hoped that these mathematicians who have defied the prevailing belief females are not good at math acquire the Fields Medal, and thereby give hope to female students who give up in math at school.