76-year-old Karen Uhlenbeck becomes first female recipient of Abel Prize for mathematics
The Abel is modelled after the Nobel prizes, which exclude mathematics

For the first time in its establishment, the Abel Prize for mathematics was awarded to a woman, 76-year-old Karen Uhlenback of Cleveland, Ohio (USA). A visiting senior research scholar and visiting associate of Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, respectively, Uhlenback is being recognized “for her fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory.”

Apart from the award, Uhlenback will be receiving six million kroner (around 37 million pesos) for her contributions. She is also an advocate for gender equality in science and mathematics, saying, “I am aware of the fact that I am a role model for young women in mathematics.”

“It’s hard to be a role model, however, because what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed… I may be a wonderful mathematician and famous because of it, but I’m also very human,” adds Uhlenback.

Lack of female representation

To this day there remains a lack of acknowledgment for women, not just in mathematics, but in the scientific field as a whole. Of the 607 Nobel prizes awarded in physics, chemistry or medicine since its inception in 1901, only 19 of them were women. That number includes renowned scientist Marie Curie, who won for physics in 1903, and for chemistry in 1911; she was the first female winner of a Nobel prize, and remains one of two people who have won a Nobel twice.

Mathematics is currently not part of the disciplines included in the Nobel prizes. Only one other woman has won a major international mathematics prize – the Fields Medal – Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran in 2014, who passed away in 2017. Both the Fields Medal and the Abel prize are among the world’s most prestigious maths prizes.

“Women are relative ‘newcomers’ as research mathematicians, so it will take a while for us to get to the level of the ‘top prize winners,'” says fellow Princeton mathematician Alice Chang Sun-Yung, who is a member of the Abel committee.

“There needs to be some ‘critical mass,’ not a just few truly outstanding exceptional individuals for the math community to recognize and accept women as equally talented (in math) as men,” adds Sun-Yung, “But change is coming and is in the air.”

Story from AFP

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