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Brandeis Graduate becomes first woman to win Abel Prize

Brandeis graduate Karen Uhlenbeck ’66 Ph.D. ’68 became the first woman to win the Abel Prize, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, announced the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters on Tuesday, March 19.

According to the Abel Prize Committee, she won the award 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.” Uhlenbeck will receive her prize from Norway’s King Harald V in a ceremony on May 21.

In 2003 the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters created the Abel Prize. It is awarded yearly, to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to mathematics. Winners receive a certificate and six million Norwegian kroner—about $700,000.

Uhlenbeck earned her B.A. in 1964 from the University of Michigan. Her graduate studies began in 1965 at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, and she later continued at Brandeis University in 1966. In 1968 she earned her Ph.D. at Brandeis.

In the late 1970s, Uhlenbeck and Jonathan Sacks discovered alternative energy measures that passed the compactness test—a test used to see whether something contains all its limit points and has all of its points lie within a fixed distance of each other, on almost all flat surfaces.  

This discovery prompted a new area of study called geometric analysis. Geometric analysis is a discipline that uses differential geometry to study the solutions to differential equations and vice versa. Using her previous research, Uhlenbeck initiated a systematic study of the moduli theory of minimal surfaces in hyperbolic 3-manifolds, also known as the minimal submanifold theory. She also contributed to topological quantum field theory and integrable systems.

In 1984, Uhlenbeck’s research also helped solve the Yamabe problem in differential geometry. In 1990, she became the first female speaker in 58 years at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Japan.

In 1991, Uhlenbeck co-founded the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI), which has the mission to “provide an immersive educational and professional development opportunity for several parallel communities from across the larger umbrella of the mathematics profession.”

Throughout her career, Uhlenbeck worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chicago. In 1983 she started working at the University of Chicago, after receiving the MacArthur Prize fellowship. Currently, Uhlenbeck is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study and visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University.
Uhlenbeck has also worked to support women in the field of mathematics. In 1991, Uhlenbeck helped launch a mentoring program for young women mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She also founded the Program for Women and Mathematics at Princeton, which makes mathematics more inclusive and provides funding. The mission of the program is to “recruit and retain more women in mathematics,” according to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.

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