Women who Rock!: Three Female Mathematicians to Tape to Your Wall

Did you know that women have accomplished incredible feats in the field of mathematics? We’re committed to exposing this generation of girls and boys to amazing women who are doing exceptional things.  That’s why we’re encouraging you to set the tone with these brilliant mathematicians; these three ladies are worth taping on the wall. 

Maryam Mirzakhani

There’s no doubt about it, Maryam deserves a spot on your wall. Maryam is well known as a winner of the esteemed Field’s Medal in mathematics. She was the first, and to date, the only woman ever to receive it.  What’s more, she was also the first Iranian to ever be given this honor. She made a statement saying: "I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Field Medallists of the future."

Maryam as a young girl in Iran. Photo courtesy of Maryam Mirzakhani, Source: Wired Science.

Born in Tehran in 1977, Maryam was a trailblazer from the start. Growing up during the Iran-Iraq war, Maryam was initially more interested in reading and writing fiction, until her second year math teacher at Farzanegan middle school uncovered her tremendous talent with numbers. As a student in Iran at a prestigious high school for gifted girls, she was the first girl to compete on the National Mathematics Olympiad Team.  She didn’t just compete; she made history, receiving a gold medal and nearly perfect score in 1994 and another gold medal with a perfect score the following year. 

After completing her undergraduate degree in Iran, Maryam went on to wow the mathematical world in her graduate studies at Harvard. Under the tutelage of Field’s Medal winner Curtis McMullen, she finished her doctorate degree in 2004, for which she received accolades for “her exceptionally creative, highly original thesis,” in which she solved not one, but two “unsolvable” problems.  Specializing in hyperbolic geometry and topology, she worked as a professor at Princeton and then at Stanford University.

Sadly, Maryam left this world too soon when breast cancer claimed her life at the age of 40.  She will not be forgotten.  Maryam’s work was groundbreaking and will inspire others for years to come.  She showed the world that a girl can do anything she puts her mind - a fabulous example for her own daughter and for the daughters of generations to come.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine G. Johnson, working at NASA in 1966

Much of the world was introduced to Katherine Johnson in the 2016 film, Hidden Figures, but Katherine’s life was filled with ground-breaking achievements that shook the status quo, each notable in its own right.  Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson is the epitome of the kind of person you look up to.  From childhood, Katherine’s keen talent with numbers was apparent. She worked hard and excelled, reaching high school at only 10 years old. At age 18, she graduated with the highest honors and a degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College.  She continued her education when she was chosen as one of three African American students to begin integration in a graduate program at West Virginia University. 


Katherine Johnson at NASA in the mid 1960s

Katherine took time away from her studies to begin a family, but jumped at the opportunity to work for NASA in 1953. There, she worked in the West Area Computing unit, a group of African American women who manually calculated complex mathematical computations. At the time, NASA was segregated, so it wasn’t always easy for Katherine. As her talent was so bright, she was later transferred to the Space Task group.


Katherine in her home in Hampton, VA in 2016, Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz.

Katherine worked on the calculations behind some of the most famous space missions of all time. These missions included: Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 launch putting the first US astronaut into space in 1961, John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission which made him the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962, and the 1969 Apollo 11 landing which sent the first three men to the moon.  An error in her calculations was literally the difference between life and death, but Katherine always rose to the occasion. 


Katherine Johnson after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

At the age of 97, Katherine received the highest honor to be given to a US Civilian when President Barak Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  One year later, NASA dedicated a building in her honor. What a way to finish out an already astounding career.  Breaking glass ceilings and sending the first people to the moon - Katherine Johnson is a role model you want your children to follow.

Here is a video with highlights of Katherine's legacy. 

Karen Uhlenbeck

Karen in 2019 after winning the Abel Prize, Photo Courtesy of Andrea Kane, Institute for Advanced Study

Karen Uhlenbeck, a professor and American mathematician, is a fierce warrior for gender equality in math and science.  As a role model for young women around the world, her message to them is that “imperfect people can still succeed.”  And succeed she has, her research has led to some of the most groundbreaking mathematical discoveries of her time, and she has been a pioneer in the field of geometric analysis. 

Karen as a fifth grader, Courtesy of the MAA.

Born in the Ohio countryside in 1942, Karen has a passion for reading, and particularly reading books about science, from an early age. Initially enrolling at the University of Michigan to study physics, she later transferred to the field of mathematics, thankfully! After receiving her doctorate degree from Brandeis University in 1968, she had several short-term posts, but at the time it was quite difficult for a woman to find a job in the field of mathematics. Karen reminisced: “I was told, when looking for jobs after my year at MIT and two years at Berkeley, that people did not hire women, that women were supposed to go home and have babies. So the places interested in my husband - MIT, Stanford, and Princeton - were not interested in hiring me.”

Karen in 1982. Photo Credit: George M. Bergman, via Wikimedia Commons: (http://owpdb.mfo.de/detail?photo_id=6141) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft\ /fdl.html)].

In 1983, she was given a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and moved to the University of Chicago to be a professor there. In 1988, she became a professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

In 2019, Karen received the Abel Prize for mathematics, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics,” and she became the first woman to receive this high honor. Karen realizes that she was part of the first generation of women to even have the opportunity to excel in the world of mathematics, and she doesn’t take that lightly.  Karen is worth taping to your wall not only for her mathematical prowess, but also for her strong voice in the space of gender equality in the math arena.  She teaches girls not only that they can succeed in math, but also that once they begin to succeed it’s important to speak up so that others can follow.

Karen Uhlenbeck - a short movie from College of Natural Sciences on Vimeo.

Remember to tape these three ladies to your child’s wall. Teach your daughters to be women who do the impossible and make their voices heard so that the daughters of the future can do the same.  Teach your sons to respect women because they have accomplished some amazing things!


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