The Fields Medal – which is named after the Canadian mathematician, John Fields – is handed out by the International Mathematical Union every four years to a handful of researchers who are 40 years old or younger.
It is commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, a field dominated by European and East Asian men.
But on Tuesday, the 2014 winners were announced in Seoul, South Korea, and the first woman and the first Latin American were among the recipients.
Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician who teaches at Stanford, was cited for her research on complex geometry, specifically the convoluted “Riemann surfaces.”
Artur Avila Cordeiro de Melo, who was born in Rio de Janeiro but is a naturalized French citizen, was honored for an array of work mostly about dynamical systems, which focus on how chaos can affect relatively simple systems.
Avila currently splits his time between his native and adoptive countries, holding positions at both the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris and the National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Rio.
Also honored was Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in England for his work on randomness, which may have an application in climate modelling, and Manjul Bhargava, a Princeton University numbers theorist.
Much of the attention of the award has gone to Mirzakhani as the first woman in a male-dominated field.
"I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women,” Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, told the BBC, “in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medalists of the future."
The medal brings with it a cash award of 15,000 Canadian dollars, or around $13,740.