Women Do Excel in Math!

Math is not my forte. I struggle with it, always have. But when the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement took off, I was working at South West Open School (SWOS). I didn’t think it would help me attain better math skills, but I saw young women’s eyes light up when they realized they could excel in these formerly male career choices. Some women have always excelled in these fields, but they have remained obscure. These fields have been a closely guarded male fraternity - until recently.

This August, one of the most prestigious mathematics prizes in the world, was awarded to a woman for the first time. Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician and emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is now the first woman to win the Abel Prize for mathematics.

Dr. Uhlenbeck was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 24th, 1942. Her father, Arnold Keskulla, was an engineer and her mother, Carolyn was an artist and schoolteacher. The family was proud of their ancestry, which was Estonian. Dr. Uhlenbeck’s maiden name, Keskulla, comes from her grandfather.

Dr.Uhlenbeck earned her B.A. in 1964, from the University of Michigan. She furthered her studies at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. In 1965, she married biophysicist Olke C. Uhlenbeck who was the son of physicist George Uhelnbeck. (George Uhlenbeck was a renowned Dutch-American theoretical physicist). When Olke went to Harvard to continue his studies, Dr. Uhlenbeck went with him to Boston and continued her studies. Dr. Uhlenbeck earned her M.A. in 1966, and a Ph.D., in 1968. Her doctoral dissertation we titled The Calculus of Variations and Global Analysis.

Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck took several temporary positions at the Massachusetts institute of Technology and later, at the University of California, Berkeley. Most Universities had an “anti nepotism” police and this made it difficult for Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck to find a permanent position, as even in completely separate departments, this policy prevented any university from hiring husband and wife.

In 1971, Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck accepted a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was not a good fit, and she did not like Urbana. She moved to the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1976. Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck separated from her husband, Olke, that same year.

In 1988, she was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin, where she held the Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair. Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck had also married her second husband, mathematician, Robert F. Williams.

Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck is still professor emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin. She is also a visiting associate at the Institute of Advanced Study and a visiting scholar at Princeton University.

Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck’s work has been in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory, and enterable systems. She was one pioneer in the field of geometric analysis, and one of her most notable contributions was her theory of predictive mathematics, inspired by soap bubbles!

A fellow mathematician, Dr. Sun-Yung Alice Chang, professor at Princeton University, said, “She did things nobody thought about doing, and after she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics.” Dr. Chang was a member of the prize committee. Dr. Uhlenbeck learned of her history making award on a Sunday morning, via text message, from Dr. Chang. “When I came out of church, I noticed that I had a text message from Alice Chang that said, Would I please accept a call from Norway?” she said. “When I got home, I called Norway back and they told me.”