UT professor emerita becomes second woman awarded math Lifetime Achievement prize

Sabrina LeBoeuf

A UT professor emerita became the second woman ever awarded the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the American Mathematical Society last week.

Karen Uhlenbeck, who taught at UT for 27 years, is a distinguished visiting professor in the School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study. She will receive the award in January 2020 for her geometry research and training of doctoral students. 

“I’m pleased because it’s a sign to a lot of the other women that they, too, will have a chance to be successful at their careers,” Uhlenbeck said.

In May, Uhlenbeck became the first woman awarded the Abel Prize, which she said is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for math. She said she is still in shock from receiving the award in Norway. 

Mathematics professor Daniel Freed, who has known Uhlenbeck since 1980, said the award reflects Uhlenbeck’s contributions to the community. He said she helped launch the Park City Mathematics Institute and the Distinguished Women in Mathematics Lecture Series.

“She’s contributed … in a very personal way by mentoring many, many, many young mathematicians along the way,” Freed said. 

While mathematics graduate student Natasa Dragovic said she has never met Uhlenbeck, she works with the lecture series Uhlenbeck started. Dragovic and other graduate students bring in lecturers for the series, and she said it’s inspiring to hear from distinguished women.

“It’s nice to see that there are quite a few already very distinguished women in this field that we’re doing,” Dragovic said. “They can be a great role model for all of us. It’s not just a man’s game, and there are actually quite a few good female mathematicians out there.”

Dragovic said she calculated that the graduate mathematics department is 30% women, but when Uhlenbeck was in graduate school, there were no female professors. 

When Uhlenbeck came to UT 15 years after Title IX was established, she said there were only two other women in the math department. To build community, she started a lunch group with the other female natural sciences professors.

“When I think back on my career in Texas, I have to say that it was a very good place for a woman who was getting into the spotlight,” Uhlenbeck said. “I had these other women figures that had come before me and were very much respected.”