As an 8-year-old, Maryam Mirzakhani used to tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would become mayor, travel the world or fulfill some other grand destiny.
Today, Mirzakhani — a 37-year-old mathematics professor at Stanford University — still writes elaborate stories in her mind. The high ambitions haven’t changed, but the protagonists have: They are hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. In a way, she said, mathematics research feels like writing a novel. “There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better,” she said. “Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.”
The Iranian mathematician follows her characters wherever they take her, along story lines that often take years to unfold. Petite but indomitable, Mirzakhani has a reputation among mathematicians for tackling the most difficult questions in her field with dogged persistence. “She has a fearless ambition when it comes to mathematics,” said Curtis McMullen of Harvard University, who was Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser.