For the first time in history, the world’s most prestigious mathematics prize is awarded to a woman.
Karen Uhlenbeck, Ph.D., 76, a emeritus professor at the University of Texas, Austin and current visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study was honored with the Abel prize, a.k.a, a Nobel prize for mathematics. The Abel comes with a prize of $700,000 and the King of Norway will present the prize to Uhlenbeck in Oslo in May.
Uhlenbeck was recognized due to her, “pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry, and mathematical physics,” according to The New York Times.
She found out about her award after leaving her Unitarian Universalist Church, when she received a message from a colleague telling her to keep an eye out for a call from Norway. She checked her missed calls. “I pressed the button and called the Abel committee back, and they told me I’d won — and I had to sit down,” she told Glamour.
Another notable scientific contribution was Uhlenbeck’s work with predictive mathematics inspired by soap bubbles.
“Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions,” said Hans Munthe-Kaas, the chairman of the Abel Committee.
“The recognition of Uhlenbeck’s achievements should have been far greater, for her work has led to some of the most important advances in mathematics in the last 40 years,” said Jim Al-Khalili, Royal Society Fellow.
In the 1960’s, Uhlenbeck had to work tirelessly to even become a professor. “It was really only at the period of time that I got my degree, that the jobs in academia—and probably elsewhere—were slowly being opened up to women,” she says. “I was right on the edge of that. There were certainly universities that would not consider hiring me. There were universities that said, ‘Oh well, why don’t you go teach at a women’s college?’ I was told things like that, but I guess I have a rebellious streak, so I persevered.”
As a child, she loved reading and wanted to become a scientist, but because there were not a significant amount of women before her time in STEM, she looked to other women for inspiration who had pioneered in other fields. The famous Julia Child was a particular role model for her. “She was 6’2″, a big woman with this immense presence,” she says. Uhlenbeck recalls the story of Child dropping a turkey on her television show and carrying on nonetheless. “She had a presence and wasn’t perfect. The feeling was if Julia Child could do it, maybe you could too,” she says.
Over the years, Uhlenbeck emulated Child’s style of approachability, gentleness, and the ability to be a role model to many women desiring to enter the STEM field. “Since winning the award, I’ve gotten innumerable emails from women telling me how important my being there is, and it’s a great feeling,” she says.
“I have to say that it struck me at some point that if I were to look around and see no women coming up through mathematics behind me, how would I feel? I would feel terrible. Now I see these lively, enthusiastic, brilliant, wacky young women coming up and doing mathematics. When I was young, I couldn’t afford to be wacky. I had to be careful. I couldn’t dye my hair purple and get up and teach a calculus class, but I love seeing it; it’s wonderful to see.”
Today, she is a contributing scholar at Princeton University as well as the Institute for Advanced Study. She is one of the founders of the Park City Mathematics Institute, which strives to train younger researchers in their interests and in the challenges faced in mathematics.
Uhlenbeck hopes more women will come to work in mathematics. “I don’t know how many young girls are still being told that they don’t have to bother taking advanced-placement math because they’re a girl and they don’t need it—but I know it still happens. However, all I can say is that it’s getting better.”