Karen Uhlenbeck’s historic win is inspiring for us all.
Women struggle to be taken seriously in STEM, and that’s if they manage to get past barriers including class background and family income to study a STEM subject in the first place.
Which makes Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck’s win of this year’s Abel Prize (a mathematical award modelled after the Nobel Prize), inspiring as well as historic: Uhlenbeck is the first woman to be awarded the prize since it was set up in 2002.
The mathematician currently works at the University of Texas at Austin, and, as well as her work in the world of maths, she is also a campaigner for gender equality in the sector.
The Academy, made up of five internationally recognised mathematicians, said it was giving her the 2019 Abel Prize for “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”.
Chair of the committee, Hans Munthe-Kaas, said Uhlenbeck’s work has “revolutionised our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimisation problems”.
It’s not the first time Uhlenbeck, who was born and brought up in America, has done something historic. In 1990 she became only the second woman to give a lecture at the International Congress of Mathematics; the first was Emmy Noether, almost 60 years before in 1932.
Described as a “role model and a strong advocate for gender equality in mathematics” by the prize, Uhlenbeck is one of the founders of the Park City Mathematics Institute at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey. Park City Mathematics Institute aims to train young researchers and promote mutual understanding of the interests and challenges in mathematics.
In her biography for the Abel Prize, Uhlenbeck is quoted as saying that being a role model for young female mathematicians is hard “because what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed”.
She continues: “Everyone knows that if people are smart, funny, pretty, or well-dressed they will succeed. But it’s also possible to succeed with all of your imperfections. I may be a wonderful mathematician and famous because of it, but I’m also very human.”
Uhlenbeck may be very human, but she’s also an inspiration to women the world over.
Images: Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study