Agnes Scott College

Chehrzad Shakiban

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1951 -


Chehrzad (Cheri) Shakiban was the first Iranian woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1951. She attended public schools where she enjoyed learning mathematics from an early age. By high school her math teacher recognized her talent in mathematics. During her 11th grade at Khwarizmi High School, Shakiban applied to the American Field Service program that brought international students to study in the United States for a year. Her application was accepted and she went to Hazelwood High School in St. Louis for what would normally have been her senior year. But Iran would not accept American diplomas, so rather than return to her high school for an additional year after returning to Iran, she took a job at the Pakistani Embassy and went to school at night to study.

In 1970 Shakiban successfully passed her final exam to get her Iranian diploma. After also passing the university entrance exam, she began her studies at the National University of Iran where she was encouraged and supported in her mathematical training by Professor Ahmad Mirbagheri. Mirbagheri even hired her as his assistant to help him with writing a book on number theory. She completed her bachelor's degree in just three years. During her final year at the university, a mathematics conference was held in Iran with Paul Erdos, Paul Halmos, and Garrett Birkhoff as invited speakers. Mirbagheri, as one of the conference organizers, arranged for Shakiban to act as the guide for these three famous mathematicians since her English was very good. Birkhoff then invited Shakiban to come to Harvard University as a "special student", in which she was also supported by a scholarship from the Iranian government as the top student at the National University.

Shakiban attended Harvard from 1973 to 1975, one of only two girls in her mathematics classes. She earned her Master's degree with a thesis that generalized the Gelfand-Dickey transform method in the calculus of variations. She then went to Brown University to continue her graduate studies from 1975 to 1979. In 1976 she married Peter Olver, a fellow graduate student at Harvard who wrote his 1976 Ph.D. dissertation under the direction of Garrett Birkhoff. Shakiban's Ph.D. thesis at Brown was on "The Euler Operator in the Formal Calculus of Variations" with advisor Wendell Fleming. Her husband had been appointed as a research fellow at Oxford University in 1978, so she lived in England during her last year of graduate studies. She was pregnant with her first child while writing her thesis and preparing for its defense, while also mourning the death of her brother who had been killed in the early days of the Iranian revolution in 1978.

After earning her Ph.D. degree in 1979, Shakiban was hired as a Tutor at Somerville College at Oxford University. In 1980 the family moved to Minnesota where her husband had been hired at the University of Minnesota. After teaching for two years at St. Catherine's University, she joined the mathematics department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1983, remaining there until her retirement in 2020. In 1996 she became the first female full professor at St. Thomas, and later became the first woman to chair the mathematics department (1996-2004). Shakiban also served as associate director at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota from 2006 to 2008, and then as its associate director for diversity from 2008 to 2015. One of the women she invited to the Institute to give a talk was Maryam Mirzakhani, a fellow Iranian who a few years later would become the first woman to win a Fields Medal.

Shakiban's research interests included the calculus of variations, fractal geometry, and computer vision, with applications to object recognition. She conducted undergraduate research with 30 students during her 37 years at St. Thomas, with many resulting in published papers. In 1998, joint work with Peter Olver and several other mathematicians led to the development of differential invariant signature curves which had applications to the recognition of visual objects. Shakiban and her husband published their book on Applied Linear Algebra in 2005, with a second edition appearing in 2018. She received awards from the University of St. Thomas for Undergraduate Research and Collaborative Scholarship with students (2005), and the Distinguished Educator Award for mentoring students (2016). In 2024 Shakiban received an honorary degree from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland in recognition of her commitment and contributions to advancing education around the world.

References

  1. Interview by Amir Asghari, March 31, 2003, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hLlpvzOoFE
  2. AMAAZE website (Anthropological and Mathematical Analysis of Archaeological and Zooarchaeological Evidence)
  3. List of Chehrzad Shakiban's Publications
  4. Mathematics Genealogy Project