Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician and professor at the University of Texas, has been bestowed with the Abel Prize, the highest prize in Mathematics, modeled after the Nobel prize. It is for the first time ever that the prize has been awarded to a woman. Karen, 76, proved her mettle in a still male-dominated world of science on Tuesday when the American professor won the prize in mathematics for her work on partial differential equations.

“Karen Uhlenbeck receives the Abel Prize 2019 for her fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory, which has dramatically changed the mathematical landscape,” Abel Committee chairman Hans Munthe-Kaas said in a statement.

“Her theories have revolutionised our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions.”

A wind of change

As the first woman to win the prize, she received a cheque for $703,000. The mathematician is also an advocate for gender equality in science and mathematics. “I am aware of the fact that I am a role model for young women in mathematics,” said Uhlenbeck, according to a Princeton 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.”

Uhlenbeck has also been a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University. She is also associated with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), US as well. The award cites “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”

Women in science

With the award, Uhlenbeck has made a niche for herself in a world where very few women have claimed their space. “She did things nobody thought about doing,” said Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a mathematician at Princeton University who served on the five-member prize committee, “and after she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics.”

Data indicates that between 1901 and 2018, of the 607 Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry or medicine, only 19 women had been awarded, according to the Nobel Prize website. In which madam Marie Curie won twice, once for physics and another time for chemistry.

Apart from Uhlenbeck, only one woman has bagged the other major international mathematics prize — the Fields Medal — Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran in 2014. Maryam passed on in 2017.

Sun-Yung Alice Chang further said “women are relative ‘newcomers” as research mathematicians, so it will take a while for us to get to the level of the ‘top prize winners’.”

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“There needs to be some ‘critical mass,’ not a just few truly outstanding exceptional individuals for the math community to recognize and accept women as equally talented (in math) as men,” Chang told AFP. “But change is coming and is in the air,” she added, pointing to wins by Uhlenbeck and Claire Voisin, who won the Shaw Prize in science in 2017.

The prize is named after the 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel.  It was established by the Oslo government in 2002 as a separate award not included among the Nobel awards.

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