Meet the First Woman to Win the Abel Prize for Mathematics

Meet the First Woman to Win the Abel Prize for Mathematics

To diversify the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, providing students from underrepresented groups with role models is crucial. With role models, younger generations can see the possibilities for a career in STEM, not only the challenges.

In fact, we can find examples of role models who have overcome adversity in all STEM fields. Mathematicians who persevered despite hardships include those who overcame sexism, racism, and economic oppression. Now we can add a new name to the list: Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck, one of the preeminent mathematicians worldwide. Dr. Uhlenbeck was recently awarded the prestigious Abel Prize for Mathematics. She is the first woman to win the prize, which has been awarded since 2003.

Karen Uhlenbeck
Karen Uhlenbeck | Image by Wikipedia

When asked in a New York Times interview about her role models, she pointed to Julia Child, a famous chef from the 1960s through the 1990s. This unexpected response illustrates the few number of women leaders in mathematics. In fact, Dr. Uhlenbeck was only the second woman in history to have been selected as a plenary speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Furthermore, another top prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, has only been awarded to one woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, in its decades of existence. These inequalities make Dr. Uhlenbeck’s award that much more meaningful.

An article by Royal Society Fellow Jim Al-Khalili describes Dr. Uhlenbeck as a strong advocate for gender equality in the sciences and mathematics. In addition, she notes that she is aware that many perceive her as a role model for young women in mathematics. However, she also emphasizes the importance of showing students that perfection isn’t necessary for success.

History of the Abel Prize for Mathematics

Overseen by the Norwegian government, the Abel Prize for Mathematics is awarded for outstanding work in the field of mathematics. With the first award issued in 2003, the prize was established in 2002 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Niels Henrik Abel, an accomplished Norwegian mathematician. The award is the latest in a list of honors for Abel. He was previously commemorated in Norway with a statue on the grounds of the royal palace, his likeness on Norwegian stamps, and his portrait on the 500-krone Norwegian bill. Abel was born in 1802 and was known for being the first to mathematically prove the general binomial theorem, which was initially proposed by Newton and Euler.

Abel persevered through both family and financial hardships. Sent to boarding school at the age of 13, he was inspired by a mathematics teacher who encouraged students to take on problem-solving assignments. Though he lacked funds to study with the best mathematicians in Europe, Abel satisfied himself with studying independently until he could benefit from scholarships. He used these scholarships to study and publish in Germany and became known for his work on fifth-degree equations and binomial proofs. Abel also submitted his work to the Paris Academy for publication, and he was eventually published posthumously after his early death at the age of 26. He reached his greatest renown for what would become known as his Paris treatise, which deals with elliptic integrals and is still cited in mathematics today.

Dr. Uhlenbeck’s Work

Karen Uhlenbeck intended to become a research scientist from an early age, but it was not until college that she became enamored with mathematics. At the University of Michigan, she intended to major in physics until she learned she could study pure mathematics, which she found more intellectually exciting. She later earned her PhD in mathematics from Brandeis University on a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Her doctoral work focused on the calculus of variations, which allows people to determine the shortest distance between two points in even extremely complex environments.

During her professional career, Dr. Uhlenbeck worked at MIT, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the University of Texas at Austin. In her retirement, she is affiliated with Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. Over the years, her research has focused on the theory of relativity, the geometry of space-time, theoretical physics, instantons, nonlinear partial differential equations, differential geometry, gauge theory, topological quantum field theory, and integrable systems. The wide-ranging interests she has pursued have allowed her to inspire countless other mathematicians, some of whom have won prestigious awards themselves. Additionally, her research has formed the foundational basis of further research in several areas of mathematics.

2019 Abel Prize Agenda

The 2019 Abel Prize will be presented to Karen Uhlenbeck on May 21, 2019, followed by a reception, public interview, and banquet that same day. Along with these events, there will be a celebratory dinner and ceremonial wreath laying at the statue of Niels Henrik Abel on May 20th. Dr. Uhlenbeck will deliver lectures on May 22nd and 23rd. Additionally, on May 20th, a prize will be awarded to local mathematics teachers.