Karen K. Uhlenbeck (1942 )
“One does mathematics because one has to, and if it is appreciated, all the better!”
–Karen K. Uhlenbeck
National Medal of Science (NMS) recipient in 2000 “for her many pioneering contributions to global geometry that resulted in advances in mathematical physics and the theory of partial differential equations. Her research accomplishments are matched by her leadership and passionate involvement in mathematics training and education.”
Karen K. Uhlenbeck was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in New Jersey. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, an artist, were both in the first generation to go to college in their families. Uhlenbeck enjoyed spending time in nature as a child, and commented that her parents still went hiking and backpacking into their 80s.
Uhlenbeck attended the University of Michigan (UM) because her parents wanted her to go to an affordable university. She was admitted to the honors program, and took advanced courses in mathematics and science. After graduating from UM, she married the biochemist Olke Cornelis Uhlenbeck, who was studying at Harvard University.
Uhlenbeck credits her first husband's family as being particularly influential in her career; her father-in-law, George Uhlenbeck, is a fellow NMS recipient. She attended graduate school at Brandeis University on an National Science Foundation graduate fellowship, earning her Ph.D. in 1968.
After several years working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, Uhlenbeck faced gender discrimination when searching for a permanent teaching job. She moved to Chicago, Ill., where she met her second husband and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago.
She served as a visiting professor at many universities before eventually joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. Uhlenbeck found that the work she was doing in mathematics had application in the world of physics, and she is credited with making significant contributions to the understanding of fundamental properties of matter.
Uhlenbeck has described the social challenges of being a woman in mathematics. She avoided friendships with other women while in school. As she explained, “It was self-evident that you wouldn't get ahead in mathematics if you hung around with women.”
Though Uhlenbeck initially found the solitary nature of research appealing, she realized that she would have to develop better communication skills in order to work effectively with her graduate students. She now enjoys collaborative projects and is known for her outreach efforts.
Uhlenbeck founded the Park City Math Institute at the Institute of Advanced Study and developed a mentoring program for women mathematicians. She has remarked that she is aware of her position as a role model for young women in the field.
“It’s hard to be a role model,” Uhlenbeck said, “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.”
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