First Woman to Win the “Nobel Prize of Math”

I spoke with Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck, Visitor in the School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study and Professor Emerita of Mathematics and Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin.

Katie Couric: I love this quote so much – you once said:  “I find that I am bored with anything I understand.”  Where do you think your sense of curiosity comes from?
Dr. Uhlenbeck: My parents were an artist and an engineer, and as a child I was given glimpses into many worlds: Art, classical music, theater, literature, the outdoors and reading science.  We also had long summers to amuse ourselves and follow up on our interests, with very few scheduled activities.  I found lots to do!  I loved jigsaw puzzles and solitaire!

When you were a young girl, you dreamed of being a research scientist. What ultimately drew you to math?
Two things drew me to math.  When I was introduced to rigorous arguments in first semester calculus, I simply fell in love with the chance to manipulate ideas according to very precise rules.  Also, I somehow visualized things in my head, so it was not just words.  The other reason is that I never found lab work, with the necessity of getting along with a lab partner, very much fun at all.  Too confining.

What’s the magic and mystery of math for you? Why do you think so many of us never quite see it that way?
I love the outdoors, especially the west of the US.  To be honest, math still seems like the wide open spaces!  Lots of freedom to explore both old and new scenery.

Your career path early on wasn’t easy at all.  Universities would often tell you “no one hired women, because women should be at home and have babies.”  How did you persevere in spite of that sexism and discouragement?
Well, first of all, there was a freedom in there being no expectations.  Women were not expected to do math, so anything I did was great! It was also a safe rebellion against expectations.  Lots of young people choose very dangerous forms of rebellion.

You know you are a role model for so many young women and you’ve been really honest about how difficult that position can be – why is it so important for you to show students “how imperfect people can be and still succeed?”
I have not chosen to be a role model.  It came with the territory, and I am doing the best I can in a difficult job.

I was really struck by this observation – you’ve said that changing a culture that doesn’t encourage girls and women to pursue math careers is “a momentous task in comparison” to your other accomplishments.  What is the hard work we all need to do to make sure girls have opportunities in math?
Right now, in the US, we have the momentous task of keeping opportunities open for young people of all backgrounds. Scientific inquiry has historically been done primarily by an elite. The programs in the wake of Sputnik opened the doors into science and math for many American kids, including women and some minorities. I benefited and feel responsible for passing this benefit on.  The last 60 years has shown how difficult this is.

What’s a one sentence piece of advice you would give a young girl who is feeling discouraged about taking on the challenges of a career in math?
First of all, surely math is not the most difficult thing in your life!  Second of all, isn’t it fun to show all those guys that you can do it!  Finally, go at your own pace, and remember that it wouldn’t be any fun at all if it were easy!

You’ve accomplished so much — what specific moment gives you the most satisfaction when you think about your career as a whole?
This is a hard one.  To be honest, as near as I can remember, it was when I got the insight into the final estimate needed for a very technical result which is not much cited, but involved very classical “hard” partial differential equations.  I thought about this problem off and on through a good part of my graduate school career, (I was greatly helped by a conversation with a senior mathematician Juergen Moser) and it was published in 1977, in a paper in Acta Mathematica.  It proved to me that I was really a mathematician.  Of course, being awarded the Abel Prize is certainly pretty amazing; I have yet to discover how satisfying an experience it will turn out to be.