A Stanford University professor today became the first woman to win the highest honor in mathematics.

Maryam Mirzakhani of Palo Alto was one of four mathematicians awarded the 2014 Fields Medal at a meeting of the International Mathematics Union in Seoul, South Korea.

The award cited Mirzakhani's sophisticated and original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. Although her work is considered pure mathematics and is mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory.

Mirzakhani told the Stanford News Service that working on proofs is "fun – it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case.

"I don't have any particular recipe," she said of her approach. "It is the reason why doing research is challenging as well as attractive. It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out."

Mirzakhani said she would be happy if her award "encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.

"I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years," she said.

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Mirzakhani emerged on the international math scene as a teenager, winning gold medals at the International Math Olympiad in 1994 and 1995. After earning her bachelor's degree from Sharif University of Technology in 1999 she began work on her doctorate at Harvard University under the guidance of Fields Medal recipient Curtis McMullen.

By borrowing principles from several fields, she brought new understanding to the area of mathematics called low dimensional topology.

"What's so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together these disparate pieces," Stanford colleague Steven Kerckhoff said. "That was the case starting with her thesis work, which generated several papers in all the top journals. The novelty of her approach made it a real tour de force."

Mirzakhani, who came to Stanford in 2008, was from 2004 to 2008 a research fellow at Clay Mathematics Institute and an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Also winning Fields Medals today were the Brazilian-French mathematician Artur Avila of the French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Paris; Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University; and Martin Hairer of Warwick University in England.

Mirzakhani is the first Stanford winner of the Fields Medal since Paul Cohen in 1966. The award was established in 1936.