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First Woman to Win Abel Prize is Math’s Newest Role Model

Early last week, one of the most distinguished mathematics prizes in the world was awarded to a woman for the first time in history. The Abel Prize for mathematics was awarded to Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematics and emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Abel Prize is modeled after the Nobel Prize and recognizes Uhlenbeck for “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”

She is a pioneer in a field known as geometric analysis and gauge theory. Her work has lead to techniques currently used by mathematicians around the world.

Uhlenbeck understood she was gifted and has acknowledged her privilege, but never felt she belonged. She said, “Looking back now I realize that I was very lucky. I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia. I certainly very much felt I was a woman throughout my career. That is, I never felt like one of the guys.”

Uhlenbeck is no stranger to being awarded in her field.

In 1983, she received a MacArthur fellowship that came with a $204,000 prize. In 1990, she became the second woman to give a plenary talk at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Each Congress has 10 to 20 plenary talks, but the last woman to give one did so in 1932. Uhlenbeck believes the plenary talk was “almost more unnerving” than being the first woman to win an Abel. She has also co-founded a program called “Women and Mathematics at Princeton,” mentoring women in science and math.

The mathematics field doesn’t have its own Nobel Prize, and the highest awards were the Fields Medals for those accomplished mathematicians 40 or younger. These were only released in small batches, however, and there is currently only one woman who has received that award.

Uhlenbeck began publishing major papers in her 30s, a time when she could be recognized with a Fields Medal but her ideas took time to spread into their own field of mathematics.

The Abel is named after Norwegian mathematician, Niels Hendrik Abel, and has been awarded annually since 2003, its most notable winner to date being John F. Nash Jr., whose life story was portrayed in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind.

Uhlenbeck stresses the challenges of being one of the first women in her field and the pressures of having to be a role model.

She says, “I am aware of the fact that I am a role model for young women in mathematics,” Uhlenbeck said in the statement. “It’s hard to be a role model, however, because what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed … I may be a wonderful mathematician and famous because of it, but I’m also very human.”

Women currently receive about 43.1% of mathematics degrees at the undergraduate level, similar to the computer sciences, engineering, and physical sciences. Women also only hold about 29% of the science and engineering workforce and the disparity is even larger for minority women.

It’s clear that there is a long way to go for women in STEM, but Karen Uhlenbeck’s victory is one step closer to women’s recognition in the workplace.

Featured Image by International Mathematical Union on Wikimedia
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