As a child growing up in Tehran, I had no intention of becoming a mathematician. My chief goal was to read every book I could find. I loved television biographies of famous women like Marie Curie and Helen Keller. Their stories inspired me to do something great with my life. I would make up my own stories, always featuring an adventurous girl who travelled the world and fulfilled all kinds of dreams. I thought I’d become a writer.
When I found math, I saw more stories in what I could do. My characters became hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. My research felt like writing a novel. At the beginning, I was just getting to know them. Then, as things evolved, when I looked back at a character, it was completely different from my first impression. I followed my characters wherever they took me, along story lines that often took years to unfold. I got a reputation for dogged persistence, tackling the most difficult questions in my mathematics field.
To be honest, I didn’t think I had made a very huge contribution. While a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, I got an email telling me that I would receive what is widely regarded as the highest honor in mathematics – the Fields Medal. I assumed that the account from which the email was sent had been hacked. But it was true. I became the first female and Iranian to receive it.
You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math. When I thought about mathematics, I constantly doodled. It helped me focus on the abstract nature of the problem. At home, I had these huge pieces of paper on the floor and spent hours and hours on what looked like to others the same picture over and over. But it’s about looking at a surface in a different way. My daughter saw it as painting.
Only three years after I got the Field’s Medal, I died from cancer. I was only 40.
It was the research that made it all worth it. It was about being optimistic and trying to connect things. I hope what I have done will inspire other women in mathematics to do great things. I was the first female winner of the Field’s Medal, but I won’t be the last.