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The first woman to win the Abel Prize

Karen Uhlenbeck, who ran a mentoring program for women in mathematics

Andrea Kane / Institute for Advanced Study / Princeton

American mathematician Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck is the first woman to win the Abel Prize, one of the most important awards in mathematics. Inspired by the Nobel Prize, the Abel Prize has been awarded by the King of Norway every year since 2003 to mathematicians who have greatly influenced the development of the field. Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, Uhlenbeck has played an important role in a number of areas, including gauge theory and integrable systems, having an impact on both mathematics and physics. At age 76, she remains active: in the morning she exercises, and in the afternoon she goes to seminars or meets colleagues to talk about mathematics, she recently said in an interview (Scientific American, March, 27). She initially began studying an undergraduate degree in physics, but ended up majoring in mathematics after falling in love with the subject during calculus classes. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1964 and after earning her PhD from Brandeis University, she went on to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California, Berkeley. She is married to biochemist Olke Uhlenbeck, which at times made it difficult to find a permanent position as a professor—universities claimed they were unable to hire a husband and wife due to potential allegations of nepotism. “I would have rather they’d been honest and said they wouldn’t hire me because I was a woman,” she wrote in an autobiographical profile in the book Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants (Temple University Press, 1999). In Austin, she ran a math program for women. As part of the award, announced on March 19, Uhlenbeck will receive 6 million Swedish kroner (about US$700,000).