March 27, 2019

Karen Uhlenbeck Wins 2019 Abel Prize For “Pioneering Achievements” in Math

TRANSFORMATIVE MATHEMATICIAN: Karen Uhlenbeck, a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University, has won the 2019 Abel Prize in mathematics. She is the first woman ever to receive the Abel Prize. (Photo by Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study)

By Donald Gilpin

Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck, current visitor in the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) School of Mathematics and a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University, has been awarded the 2019 Abel Prize in mathematics “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,” according to the Abel Committee.

Uhlenbeck, professor emerita of mathematics and Sid W. Richardson regents chair at the University of Texas at Austin, is the first woman ever to receive the Abel Prize, which is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematicians.

“It’s a great honor to be the first woman to get the Abel Prize,” she said. “It is 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 continued, “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. 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!”

Expressing her gratitude for the prize, Uhlenbeck concluded, “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.”

IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf said, “The Institute is thrilled that Karen Uhlenbeck has been recognized with the 2019 Abel Prize for her transformative work across mathematical disciplines, from minimal surfaces to gauge theory, and for her foundational contributions to the field of geometric analysis. 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.”

Bestowed by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, 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. Uhlenbeck will receive the prize in Oslo, Norway on May 21 from His Majesty King Harald V.

Since the Abel Prize was first awarded in 2003, 18 of the 20 recipients have been affiliated with IAS as faculty or members, including the 2018 honoree, Robert Langlands, professor emeritus in the School of Mathematics. 

Uhlenbeck first came to the IAS as a member in 1979, returned as a member in 1995, served as a visiting professor in 1997-98 and 2012, and has been a visitor since 2014. She was awarded an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2012.

A founder of the IAS Park City Mathematics Institute, a summer program that brings together mathematicians and math teachers, Uhlenbeck also cofounded the IAS Women and Mathematics program and established the program on the IAS campus in 1994. It is a program designed to address gender imbalance and success rates among women in the mathematics field.

“I am aware of the fact that I am a role model for young women in mathematics,” she said as quoted in a Princeton University press release. “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.”