In memoriam to mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), MSRI deputy director Hélène Barcelo and director David Eisenbud share the following piece, written for the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.
Everyone in the math community knows that Maryam Mirzakhani was an outstanding mathematician, a winner of the Fields Medal in 2014. Many have seen a video with her on the floor drawing figures that reflect her deep mathematical imagination, and suggest some of the charm of her fresh and vibrant personality. Still others knew Maryam from her other distinctions—for example, as one of Nature Magazine's "10 people who matter" in 2014. But only a few know how deeply Maryam was engaged with MSRI.
Maryam was a key member of the MSRI Scientific Advisory Committee from 2012-2016, the committee charged with selecting the scientific programs and their members. During part of that time she was very ill with what turned out to be her terminal cancer, but she never missed a meeting—even when she couldn't travel from Stanford to Berkeley she attended by video, between harsh medical treatments—and she faithfully did the substantial committee homework. It is fair to say that she was an inspiration to the entire committee.
She played other important roles at MSRI too. She was one of the main organizers of the semester-long program on Teichmüller theory and Kleinian groups in 2007, and a research professor for the spring of 2015. She was even a member of the complementary program when her husband, Jan Vondrak, came to MSRI for a computational program in the spring of 2005.
Finally, in the spring before her death, Maryam had agreed to be nominated as a trustee of MSRI—although she warned David Eisenbud, MSRI's director, in a long and deeply sad meeting, that she might well not live to take office.
We believe that Maryam's engagement with MSRI came from a close alignment of priorities: first, for mathematics of the highest quality, done in a playful collaborative style; second, for the cultivation of talent also in young women, and the support of women with children; and, finally, for welcoming mathematicians from abroad, understanding that they enormously enrich the U.S. mathematical scene. It was an honor to know Maryam: brilliant, charming, and courageous to the end. We miss her deeply.
Quanta Magazine's video "Maryam Mirzakhani: A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces" features a profile of the 2014 Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani, whose monumental work draws deep connections between topology, geometry and dynamical systems.