Mathematician, Educator, a Founder of modern geometric analysis, and the First Woman to win the Abel Prize
Karen Uhlenbeck is a barrier-breaking mathematician. She has been teaching, researching, and studying for over 40 years, helping find the field of geometric analysis, a discipline that uses differential geometry to study the solutions to differential equations. Currently, she is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, where she held the Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair. She is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University.
She has many honors and achievements, including being the first woman to win an Abel Prize since its inception. She has also served as a Fellow for many boards and organizations.
In her free time, she likes to hike, read, go to concerts, and hear talks on non-mathematical subjects.
About Her Life Now and Looking Back at Her Career
A typical day in my life (during the Covid-19 epidemic) usually involves one or more zoom meetings, about an hour of answering email, a one to two hour walk, cooking lunch and dinner for my husband and myself, and thinking about mathematics during whatever time is left.
The toughest moments in my career have come from health issues. I have had to learn to function and enjoy life despite being in either physical or emotional pain. It can be done!
My years at the University of Texas in Austin are my favorite part of my career. Texas has a history of strong women (Ma Ferguson, Ann Richards, Molly Ivens, Liz Carpenter, Barbara Jordan and my Texas colleague Cecille DeWitt). I felt right at home.
There is still a lot of mathematics to learn.
HER PERSPECTIVE WITH TIME
I did not have a dream job when I was young. Women were not encouraged to have careers in the 1950’s. I just aspired to learn things.
When I took honor calculus as a freshman in college, I fell in love with and was good at mathematical constructions and arguments.
I attribute my success to a fortuitous combination of heredity and environment.
My favorite projects in mathematics all involve tying two different kinds of mathematics together.
Mrs. Uhlenbeck is widely known as the founder of modern geometric analysis. Read more here:
ON THE ABEL PRIZE
The Abel prize did not exist during most of my career. I did not pursue mathematics in order to obtain awards. I pursued it because I loved it and could make a living doing it.
Photo by Danielle Alio
How do you see the field of mathematics, STEM changing in the next 10 years?
I very much hope that mathematics will become even more inclusive and that African Americans will be better represented in the field.
How would you describe your experiences as a woman in a predominantly male field?
As a woman in a predominately male field I have always been an outsider. This has both advantages and disadvantages.
Her Advice to You
My advice to all young people is to keep and open mind, listen to suggestions, and follow those that fit you, the time and the place.
The biggest honor of my career was receiving the MacArther Fellowship in 1983.
Must Have Traits
In my time and place, the willingness to be different and to do things differently was necessary.
Passing it Forward
“Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. What the world needs is people who have comes alive”.
-Howard Thurman, a black minister and civil rights activist (1899-1981)