Karen Uhlenbeck Just Became the First Woman to Win the Abel Prize


Karen Uhlenbeck just made history. The mathematician is the first woman to win the Abel prize — an award often referred to as the “Nobel prize” of mathematics.

Uhlenbeck, 76, was awarded the $700,000 prize for her work in gauge theory and geometric analysis. For those who don’t know what gauge theory is (ahem, me), the theory “underpins much of modern theoretical physic, and is integral to cutting-edge research in particle physics, general relativity and string theory,” according to New Scientist.

Uhlenbeck is a professor emerita — a prestigious title awarded only to full-time tenured professors after they retire — at the University of Texas at Austin. He colleagues refer to her a “maverick mathematician” and NPR writes that “Her perspective has pervaded the field and led to some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics over the last 40 years.”

Uhlenbeck is currently a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study and learned she won the award on March 17 after attending church. She will officially be presented the award by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo on May 21.

While Uhlenbeck is taking home the Abel prize, this isn’t the mathematician’s first accolade. She was given a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983 and was just the second woman in history to give a highlighted plenary talk at the International Congress of Mathematics.

Uhlenbeck has undeniably made leaps and bounds within mathematics, but it’s equally important to highlight that work she’s done for women in STEM and beyond. An advocate for diversity in the field, her work for a more equal future is just as award-worthy as her scientific breakthroughs.