June Huh wasn’t interested in mathematics until a chance encounter during his sixth year of college. Now his profound insights connecting combinatorics and geometry have led to math’s highest honor:

It took Huh six years to graduate. In that sixth year, he enrolled in a class taught by the famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka, who won the Fields Medal in 1970. Hironaka was charismatic, and Huh quickly fell under his sway.

But it wasn’t just his professor’s charm that attracted Huh that first day in class. It was also the math itself. Ostensibly, the course was an introduction to algebraic geometry, the study of solutions to algebraic equations and their geometric properties. Instead, Hironaka taught his own work in an area called singularity theory, which focuses on certain types of spaces. “Basically, he lectured about what he thought about yesterday,” Huh said — a very particular problem, and proofs that weren’t necessarily correct. What began as a 200-student class quickly dwindled; a few weeks later, only five students were left, Huh among them.

For the first time, he witnessed research mathematics unfolding in real time. Hironaka’s lectures weren’t polished as in other undergraduate courses, where everything was streamlined, the answers already worked out. Huh loved the suspense of it, the act of trying to do something no one really knew how to do — and the freedom that came with not knowing, the surprises that became possible. The typical material taught in college has been refined over the course of centuries, he said. “That’s very different from observing this raw mathematics in front of your eyes.”