We were told that we couldn’t do math because we were women,” Karen Keskulla Uhlenback wrote in a 1996 article in which she described her life as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Early in her professional career, in the 1970s, she was told that “women were supposed to go home and have babies”. Undeterred, Keskulla Uhlenback went on to conduct what the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters described as “pioneering research” that has “had a fundamental impact on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics”. On Tuesday, when the Academy awarded her the Abel Prize, it also praised her as a “strong advocate of gender equality in science and mathematics”. She is the first woman recipient of the prize seen as the Nobel Prize in Mathematics.
“I liked doing what I wasn’t supposed to do, it was a sort of legitimate rebellion,” Keskulla Uhlenback wrote in the 1996 article. Her work involved building bridges between physics and mathematics. Her contribution to the gauge theory laid the foundation for one of the major achievements of 20th century physics that involves the unification of two fundamental forces of nature — electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. Her other influential research shows how small changes in one quantity can help find the minimum or maximum value of another.
However, on several occasions, Keskulla Uhlenback has acknowledged that it is her educational work — not mathematical theorems — which gives her the most satisfaction. The “momentous task”, she has said, is changing a culture that doesn’t encourage girls and women to pursue careers in mathematics.