Karen Keskulla
Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck / Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Making History: Most Prestigious Math Prize Goes to Woman for First Time

At age 76, Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck is both a math genius and a role model and advocate for gender equality in science and mathematics, two fields that are traditionally not welcoming to women.

For the first time in history (and long overdue) the most prestigious math award in the world is going to a woman. Uhlenbeck will be the first to win the Abel Prize “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.”

The Abel Prize is like the Nobel Prize of math. It comes with $700,000 of earnings and will be presented to Uhlenbeck by the king of Norway in May of this year in Oslo.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters decided on Uhlenbeck as the winner this year because of her “decades” of contributions to science with her work in predictive math using soap bubbles for inspiration.

On top of being a brilliant scientist, Uhlenbeck is a contributing scholar at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. She helped found the Park City Mathematics Institute, which trains young researchers and scientists.

Uhlenbeck also co-founded the Institute’s Women and Mathematics program. Created in 1993, the institute recruits and encourages women to lead mathematics research throughout their careers.

Uhlenbeck’s accomplishments and those of other women in STEM fields are notable, especially since men greatly outnumber women in these industries and women face many challenges entering math and science.

One of the many obstacles is the shortage of female mentors. Mentors can help promote one’s career and accomplishments, which is important for women since studies have found that women are often less likely than men to promote themselves.

Women can also face a lack of acceptance or help from coworkers and supervisors, including sexual harassment and discrimination, since at this point in time a woman in STEM is likely to be working almost exclusively with men.

Uhlenbeck’s mathematical accomplishments and recognition are especially impressive since just 15 percent of tenure-track positions are held by women, one of the lowest percentages among the sciences.

Research has also shown that women are really underrepresented in editorial boards of scientific journals, which are like the “gatekeepers” of what science is seen by the world and other scientists.

In an analysis of 13,000 editor positions for 435 math journals, researchers found that under 9 percent of math journal editor positions are held by women and that one in ten journals have no female editors at all.

Another study found that women are often not perceived as “brilliant” or “genius” regardless of their accomplishments. The study analyzed reviews of professors on RateMyProfessors.com and using that data, the researchers found that in fields where the words “brilliant” and “genius” were less likely to be attributed to women, women were less likely to reach upper levels of academia.

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