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Girls & Women

A Woman Just Won the 'Nobel Prize of Math' for the First Time


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Science, technology, engineering, and math have been historically male-dominated fields, but trailblazers like Karen Uhlenbeck are proving that they don’t have to be. Uhlenbeck is shattering stereotypes simply by succeeding in her field and showing girls and women everywhere that anything is possible. You can take action here to help advance gender equality.

Pythagoras, Euclid, Guillaume L’Hôpital, Johann Bernoulli, John Nash. History is littered with the names of famous mathematicians, nearly all of them men, after whom formulas and entire fields of math have been named.

But Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician, has proven that when it comes to math, women are absolute equals — and she didn’t even need theorems to do it.

The University of Texas professor became the first woman to win the Abel Prize, considered the “Nobel Prize of Math,” on Tuesday.

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Uhlenbeck’s decades of work have touched on several disciplines, including geometry, quantum theory, and physics, but is being recognized, in particular, 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 prize’s website.

The Abel Prize, first awarded in 2003, is bestowed by the King of Norway and comes with a 6 million Norwegian kroner (approximately $700,000) cash prize.

Uhlenbeck is a celebrated mathematician, having previously won the National Medal of Science in 2000 and receiving a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a “genius grant” — in 1983.

“Uhlenbeck’s research has led to revolutionary advances at the intersection of mathematics and physics,” Paul Goldbart, dean of the University of Texas’ College of Natural Sciences, said in a statement.

“Her pioneering insights have applications across a range of fascinating subjects, from string theory, which may help explain the nature of reality, to the geometry of space-time,” he added.

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Uhlenbeck told the New York Times that she has been acutely aware of the unique opportunity she had to be a role model for the next generation of women in academia. Growing up, she said her own role model was famed chef and television personality, Julia Child.

“I certainly very much felt I was a woman throughout my career. That is, I never felt like one of the guys,” she said.

Still she considers herself lucky, telling the Times, “I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia.”

But almost as important as her contributions to her field, are Uhlenbeck’s contributions to the next generation of women. Trailblazers like Uhlenbeck help show women and girls around the world that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which have traditionally been male-dominated, do not need to remain so.

Her historic win is not only helping to advance the field of mathematics, but shattering gender stereotypes.