Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani – making maths creative

July 19, 2017, 10:02 a.m.

Illustration for Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani – making maths creative

I’ve already written about how much I love Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets. As well as introducing me to a refreshing approach to learning and understanding maths, the book introduced me to Maryam Mirzakhani.

On 15th July, we heard the sad news that Mirzakhani had died of cancer. She was only 40. The first time we learnt of her incredible talent was in August 2014, when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal – often nicknamed the ‘maths Nobel Prize’. In the book, Boaler describes the discussion around this prestigious maths award, and Mirzakhani’s creative approach to maths:

As mathematicians talked about the tremendous contributions she has made to the advancement of mathematics, they talked about the ways her work connects many areas of mathematics, including differential geometry, complex analysis, and dynamical systems. Maryam reflected: “I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields – it’s very refreshing … there are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work. It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.” This is a mindset I would love all students of mathematics to have.

It’s a mindset I try to encourage in maths sessions. I sometimes mention Mirzakhani when I comment on how visual aids are often very helpful in supporting pupils to learn. She was a famously artistic mathematician: “Her preferred method of working on a problem was to doodle on large sheets of white paper, scribbling formulas on the periphery of her drawings. Her young daughter described her mother at work as ‘painting.’” When pupils are stuck in sessions, I sometimes suggest they draw their maths problem – a recommendation from Boaler, inspired by Mirzakhani.

The world is mourning not only a uniquely creative mathematical mind, but a fantastic female role model in a field where they are so urgently needed. Boaler refers to a 1986 study by Eccles and Jacobs, which resonated strongly with me:

Girls look up to their female teachers and identify with them at the same time as teachers are often and sadly conveying the idea that math is hard for them or they are just not a “math person.” Many teachers try to be comforting and sympathetic about math, telling girls not to worry, that they can do well in other subjects. We now know such messages are extremely damaging. Researchers found that when mothers told their daughters “I was no good at math at school”, their daughter’s achievement immediately went down.  

Other studies have shown girls “lack self-confidence” in their ability to solve mathematics and science problems. Following on from this, much has been made of the ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in STEM careers. For this reason, I’m always inspired and encouraged by the number of female maths tutors we have on programmes. As many girls make their career choices by the time they are 14, early inspiration is key - getting more female maths tutors involved in our primary programmes will be a goal for me this year.

Maryam Mirzakhani remains an inspiring role model – for her creativity, optimism and resolve in the face of some of the most challenging mathematical questions that have ever arisen. She once told a reporter “you have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math.” I’ll be keeping this in mind when I’m encouraging pupils during sessions, and encouraging myself during my own progression in learning maths. 

Written by Rachel Belward, London Programme Coordinator

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