Karen Uhlenbeck Awarded 2019 Abel Prize

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Lee Sandberg

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the 2019 Abel Prize to Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck whose affiliation with the Institute for Advanced Study spans four decades, as a current Visitor in the School of Mathematics and a former Member and Visiting Professor in the School. Professor Emerita of Mathematics and Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck was cited by the Abel Committee “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 Institute is thrilled that Karen Uhlenbeck has been recognized with the 2019 Abel Prize, for her transformative work across various mathematical disciplines, from minimal surfaces to gauge theory, and for her foundational contributions to the field of geometric analysis,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor. “A leading mathematician of our time and a member of the IAS community since 1979, Karen has played a leading role in advancing mathematics research, championing diversity, and inspiring the next generation of women to become leaders in the field.”

“Quite frankly: it is about time. Karen has had a tremendous impact on the development of modern geometric analysis, particularly the calculus of variations. Her contributions to minimal surface theory and Yang-Mills theory have changed the subjects and started some of the most exciting developments in mathematics,” said Helmut Hofer, IAS Professor in the School of Mathematics. “Karen has had a long affiliation with IAS, and we are very happy that after retiring from the University of Texas at Austin she continues to contribute to the vibrancy of IAS as a Visitor. Besides her scientific impact, Karen has been an extraordinarily good citizen, making numerous contributions to the mathematical profession at large. She is a role model for all of us.”

The Abel Prize is an international award that acknowledges outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics and comes with a monetary award equivalent to about $700,000. The Prize will be given to Uhlenbeck by H.M. King Harald V at an award ceremony in Oslo on May 21. Since the Abel Prize was first bestowed in 2003, 18 of the 20 recipients have been affiliated with the Institute as Faculty or Members, including the 2018 honoree, Robert Langlands, Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics.

Uhlenbeck, the first woman to receive the Abel Prize, initially came to the Institute as a Member in the School of Mathematics in 1979. She returned as a Member in 1995, served as a Visiting Professor in 1997–98 and 2012, and has been a Visitor since 2014. She is a founder of the Institute’s Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI), a summer program that brings together mathematicians and math teachers to study and exchange ideas, providing immersive educational and professional development opportunities. Uhlenbeck also cofounded the IAS Women and Mathematics program (WAM) with fellow IAS Member Chuu-Lian Terng in 1993 as part of PCMI, and then established the program on the Institute’s campus in 1994. The purpose of WAM is to address gender imbalance and success rates among women in the mathematics field. Both Uhlenbeck and Terng have mentored hundreds of young women mathematicians through the program they founded, resulting in a powerful network of nearly 1,500 participants to date.

Uhlenbeck was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1942. Her father, Arnold Keskulla, was an engineer, and her mother, Carolyn Windeler Keskulla, an artist and school teacher. Having a curious mind, she developed a lifelong love of the outdoors, read incessantly, and dreamed of becoming a research scientist. Planning to major in physics, she enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she discovered the intellectual challenge of pure mathematics, guiding her future academic path. Graduating in 1964, she went on to study at Brandeis University, earning her Master’s degree in 1966 and Ph.D. in 1968.

In 1990, in Kyoto, Japan, Uhlenbeck became the second woman to give a Plenary Lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians, the largest and most important gathering of mathematicians in the world. The first woman to deliver the lecture was Emmy Noether in 1932; the following year, Noether joined the Institute’s School of Mathematics as a Visitor from 1933–35. In 2016, a series of lectures at the Institute celebrated the life and work of Noether, during which Uhlenbeck explored Noether’s fundamental insight into the conservation law in modern theoretical physics.

Uhlenbeck has held academic positions at the University of Texas at Austin; Institute Des Hautes Études Scientifiques; the University of Chicago; Max-Planck-Institut für Mathematik; Harvard University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Uhlenbeck is a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, and a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the National Association of Mathematicians, and the Association for Women in Mathematics. Her honors include the Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society (2007); the National Medal of Science (2001); the Noether Lecture award from the Association for Women in Mathematics (1988); and a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1983–88).

About the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters was founded in 1857. It is a nongovernmental, nationwide body that embraces all fields of science and scholarship. The Academy has Norwegian and foreign members, as well as honorary members. The members are divided into two sections: Mathematics and Natural Sciences, and Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition to the Abel Prize, the Academy awards the Kavli Prize in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.

About the IAS Women and Mathematics Program
The Women and Mathematics Program (WAM) at the Institute for Advanced Study is an annual program with the mission to recruit and empower women to lead in mathematics research at all stages of their academic careers. WAM encourages female mathematicians to form collaborative research relationships and mentoring networks that provide ongoing support and guidance. WAM brings together scholars from early- to late-stage careers to maximize opportunities for growth and exchange. WAM is funded by the National Science Foundation as well as a generous grant from Lisa Simonyi.

About the Institute
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. The Institute exists to encourage and support curiosity-driven research in the sciences and humanities—the original, often speculative thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world. Work at the Institute takes place in four Schools: Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Science. It provides for the mentoring of scholars by a permanent Faculty, and it ensures the freedom to undertake research that will make significant contributions in any of the broad range of fields in the sciences and humanities studied at the Institute.

The Institute, founded in 1930, is a private, independent academic institution located in Princeton, New Jersey. Its more than 8,000 former Members have held positions of intellectual and scientific leadership throughout the academic world. Thirty-three Nobel Laureates, 42 out of 60 Fields Medalists, and 18 of the 20 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many winners of the Wolf and MacArthur prizes, have been affiliated with the Institute.