Photo of Karen K. Uhlenbeck

Karen K. Uhlenbeck

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

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 Uhlenbeck on the importance of mentoring programs

Looking back on her career, mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck can’t really say that she was particularly interested in mathematics as a child, “because one doesn’t really understand what mathematics is until at least halfway through college when one takes abstract math courses and learns about proofs,” she said years later. As a child, however, she “read a lot and read everything.” Years later, this love of learning translated into a keen interest in discovering how the world works. Uhlenbeck went on to study math at the University of Michigan and received her B.A. in 1964. She was one of very few women studying math at that time—something that would not change for much of her career. After receiving her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1968, Uhlenbeck taught at MIT and UC Berkeley, but encountered many obstacles to getting hired as a full-time faculty member. She was told “that people didn’t hire women, that women were supposed to go home and have babies.” “So the places interested in my husband — MIT, Stanford, and Princeton — were not interested in hiring me,” she said.

She ultimately found a position at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign and later at a number of other institutions, including the University of Chicago and the UT Austin, where she fully proved her capacities as a mathematician and as a researcher. Aside from her work as a mentor and role model for women interested in science, Uhlenbeck is best known for her research on geometric partial differential equations, the calculus of variations, and gauge theory, and other complex topics.

By Sara Grossman