Karen Uhlenbeck is first woman to win top mathematics prize

Karen Uhlenbeck. Photo: Andrea Kane, Institute for Advanced Study.

Karen Uhlenbeck, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study and a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University, is the 2019 recipient of the Abel Prize, a Norwegian prize awarded annually by the the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters to an outstanding mathematician.

Uhlenbeck was cited by the Abel Committee “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.”

The Abel Prize is an international award that acknowledges outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics and comes with a monetary award equivalent to about $700,000. The prize will be given to Uhlenbeck by H.M. King Harald V at an award ceremony in Oslo on May 21. Uhlenbeck is the first woman to receive the prize.

“I can hardly believe it, and I am deeply appreciative. Many thanks to the Norwegian Academy and the institutions and people who have contributed to what has been so far a full and interesting life,” Uhlenbeck said. “I hope that my selection for this award demonstrates that a great variety of individuals are capable of contributing to mathematics at the highest level.”

Uhlenbeck said it is a great honor to be the first woman to win the Abel Prize, but also a great responsibility.

“Many, many thanks to the few remarkable pioneers before me and to the many women coming along behind me—first slowly and now in great numbers. I am in the first generation of women who could expect professional advancement, maybe not at that time quite equal to men, but the doors were no longer locked,” she said.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, when the legal barriers to advancement were struck down, we expected women and minorities to march through the doors and take their rightful place, at least in academia. It proved not so simple, but tremendous progress has been made, at least for women,” she said. “The young women mathematicians of today are a varied, impressive pool of talent. I hope in my own way, I have joined others in prying those locked doors open, and in keeping them open wide. Research mathematics is but a small part of human endeavor, but very rewarding and beautiful to those who gain entry. By some quirk of the human intellect, it is also very useful. I am grateful to the Norwegian Academy for recognizing this.”

Uhlenbeck first came to the Institute for Advanced Study as a member in the School of Mathematics in 1979. She returned as a member in 1995, served as a visiting professor in 1997-98 and 2012, and has been a visitor since 2014.

“The Institute is thrilled that Karen Uhlenbeck has been recognized with the 2019 Abel Prize, for her transformative work across various mathematical disciplines, from minimal surfaces to gauge theory, and for her foundational contributions to the field of geometric analysis,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study. “A leading mathematician of our time and a member of the IAS community since 1979, Karen has played a leading role in advancing mathematics research, championing diversity, and inspiring the next generation of women to become leaders in the field.”

Uhlenbeck is a founder of the Institute’s Park City Mathematics Institute, a summer program that brings together mathematicians and math teachers to study and exchange ideas, providing immersive educational and professional development opportunities. She also co-founded the Institute for Advanced Study’s Women and Mathematics program with fellow Institute member Chuu-Lian Terng. The purpose of the program is to address gender imbalance and success rates among women in mathematics. Both Uhlenbeck and Terng have mentored hundreds of young women mathematicians through the program, resulting in a network of nearly 1,500 participants to date.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1942, Uhlenbeck earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and her master’s and doctorate degrees from Brandeis University. She has held academic positions at several universities, and is a professor emerita of mathematics and Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin. Her honors include a Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society, a National Medal of Science, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

Helmut Hofer, a professor in the Institute’s School of Mathematics, said Uhlenbeck has had a tremendous impact on the development of modern geometric analysis, and her contributions have started some of the most exciting developments in mathematics. “Quite frankly: it is about time,” he said of her being awarded the Abel Prize.

“Karen has had a long affiliation with IAS, and we are very happy that after retiring from the University of Texas at Austin she continues to contribute to the vibrancy of IAS as a visitor,” he said. “Besides her scientific impact, Karen has been an extraordinarily good citizen, making numerous contributions to the mathematical profession at large.  She is a role model for all of us.”