Female mathematicians are rare and dear


LAST month, I read a copy of the July 18 edition of The National and a particular article stunned me – shocked me in fact. No, it had nothing to do with the election in PNG. It was an article on the Focus page and it was about the passing away of top Stanford mathematics scholar/researcher Prof Maryam Mirzakhani, a mathematical genius.
Last week, I was watching YouTube videos of her lecturing and could tell she really enjoyed her work, in the way she was explaining it to others. She is known for her work on the geometry of Riemann surfaces and we have to appreciate the fact that she is a successful woman, a female scholar from the Middle East who made it big in the United States in a predominately male field, as well as being the first woman to have won the Fields Medal, a prestigious international maths award.
This award is like the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. It is given every four years to two-four mathematicians under the age of 40 who have contributed significantly to the subject and related areas.
To most people, including mathematics teachers and lecturers in PNG, Mirzakhani – who is originally from Tehran, in Iran – is virtually unknown in the mainstream.
As one who has learned a fair bit of maths and taught the subject to secondary and territory students over the years, I know that Mirzakhani’s demise is a terrible loss to the mathematics world.
As was reported, she passed on on July 14 after succumbing to a battle against breast cancer since 2013.
It is my wish in this article to point out the urgent need for more female mathematicians in our country. A follow up article (next week) in this supplement will include pointers for students on how to succeed in studying mathematics.
I hope that will help the millions of students in the country who are struggling with the subject from week to week.
My interest in the progress and achievements of female mathematicians or teachers – like Prof Mirzakhani – has to do with my own personal experiences of really learning the subject when I was in high school and later at university fin the four years in my BSc degree programme.
People who say female maths teachers are vital in encouraging more females to study the subject are not entirely correct – in fact, in my view that is an understatement. Female mathematicians or mathematics teachers do not just encourage girls – they also urge boys as well as all the little children at the lower levels of education in a way that is unique.
Mothers who teach the subject are extra special. They bring with them a certain love for the subject into the classroom and share with their students the knowledge of numbers, equations and mathematical processes in a way that males cannot. Think about this: Mothers can get you to do certain things much more effectively than fathers, right?
As a teacher of the subject, I have told students and relatives that two of the teachers who have impressed on me the wonder of maths as well as how to properly work with it were not males – they were women and they were mothers.
The first was my mother, Clara Hukahu, a primary school teacher who left the teaching profession back in 1978, after suffering from a form of schizophrenia – a more polished contemporary term for what people then labelled mental illness. (She never recovered from that illness until her demise 32 years later.) The second was my Grade 12 maths teacher, Grace George of Kerala, India.
The former left us in 2010 and the latter in 1991. Over the years, I have reasoned that the former passed on her love of algebra to me in an off-handed remark she made about how she loved solving equations when she was in school.   The latter forced me (like no-one has ever done in my life) to cultivate a routine and respect with which to study the subject. That prepared me well for my BSc university studies where I never had any real problems working with courses like calculus, linear algebra, complex analysis as well as ordinary and partial differential equations, among other science courses.
Now back to the esteemed professor. I came to know about Mirzakhani a few years ago when I was watching a video of French mathematician Prof Cédric Villani talking about the beauty of maths and the wonder of working with it. Villani also was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010, while Mirzakhani received hers in 2014 – to date, and of the 52 previous recipients, the only female to do so.
Learning about Villani and his Fields award turned my attention to Mirzakhani. While looking at the list of previous medal winners, I noticed the Iranian female stellar student had won the medal when she was 37 years old.  It was reported that her interest in maths started in high school. She has an impressive history of achievements including winning a gold medal as a member in the Iranian team participating in the International Mathematical Olympiad team in 1994.
In 1995, she participated again in that maths competition and won another gold and gained a perfect score which brought her into the limelight.
Mirzakhani continued learning the subject at Sharif University in Tehran. Upon completing undergraduate programme she headed to Harvard to do her PhD studies. She was later taken on by Stanford as a lecturer.
With Mirzakhani’s passing, this thought has again been brought to my mind:  The future of women and mathematics in our nation looks bleak at the moment. (In a maths conference three years ago, members of the PNG Mathematical Society also pointed out that PNG has only three PhDs in Maths, among them is one female, Divine Word University President Prof Cecilia Nembou.
My wish, as one who has studied and taught the subject, is to see that special scholarships and opportunities be offered by the government and universities to encourage young women to pursue mathematics as a full-time career, as in academics and teaching. It would be one way of giving a new shine to the subject which is viewed as a predominantly male field.
Furthermore, we actually may have a PNG Mirzakhani right here in our midst but are not aware of it. Better opportunities and privileges may unearth those talents who may go on to tutor students and that would have a ripple effect on young scholars – both males and females – and their learning.
Their learning of course will not only include maths courses but also physical sciences, engineering, economics as well as business, where a lot of maths skills are applied.

  • Next week: Studying mathematics is like studying to paint.
  • Thomas Hukahu is a writer and also a member of the PNG Mathematical Society.