Uvalde professor recalls his Abel Prize-winning mentor

Each year since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in chemistry, physics, literature, peace, and medicine. The establishment of a similar prize for mathematics was first proposed in 1899, but the idea remained in limbo until the first Abel Prize was awarded in 2003. Named after the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, the Abel Prize is the supreme achievement in mathematics, comparable to the Nobel Prize in other subjects.

Last month, Karen Uhlenbeck became the first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize “for her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”

Dr. Uhlenbeck is a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study, best known for hosting Albert Einstein, and a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University.

She also happens to have been one of my professors when I studied at the University of Texas at Austin. I specialized in geometry, so she sat on my dissertation committee and served as a job reference when I was hired at Sul Ross.

Dr. Uhlenbeck was known as an approachable, encouraging professor whose relaxed style belied a keen intellect. Students joked that she could nod off during a research seminar (not an uncommon occurrence among professors), start awake, make a remark with more insight than anyone else in the room, and then nod off again. An April 8 New York Times article accurately describes her as “stylishly disheveled, with a preference for comfy, colorful clothing with pockets and Birkenstocks with socks.” In other words, she looks like a mathematician.

Women are underrepresented in mathematics. The most recent annual survey of the American Mathematical Society indicates that women accounted for only 27 percent of the math doctorates awarded during the 2015 – 2016 cycle. Dr. Uhlenbeck has long been recognized for her efforts to reverse this trend. At UT, she worked to support female graduate students, holding gatherings for discussion and support. She also co-founded the Women and Mathematics Program at the IAS.

I sat down with Dr. Uhlenbeck to discuss my career plans not long before I graduated. I was nervous to talk about my decision to dedicate myself to education. Many researchers would see it as tantamount to admitting incompetence: in their world, teaching is, at best, an unavoidable nuisance. But she was supportive, telling me that I would be a good role model for Hispanic students, which I hope is true.

This was an acknowledgement that minorities also face setbacks in mathematics. When I graduated in 2009, underrepresented minorities accounted for only 6 percent of all U.S. citizens receiving math doctorates. The numbers haven’t improved much since then. Hispanic women, the largest demographic group served by Rio Grande College, account for only 1 percent. It’s time for that to change.

I recently contacted Dr. Uhlenbeck, and she kindly agreed to an interview for the Uvalde Leader-News.

Ortiz: “What first got you interested in math?”

Uhlenbeck: “Before I went to college, I was interested in physics and astronomy. I found popular books on these subjects in the library. However, when I got to college and learned the rigorous basis for calculus, I really enjoyed this. Playing with the mathematical abstractions according to the rules set out was much more fun than any game I ever played. I also found I was good at it, which made it even nicer.”

Ortiz: “What still surprises you about math?”

Uhlenbeck: “I am amazed that the abstract mathematics that mathematicians construct is so useful. Elliptic curves are used in cryptography, computers use elaborate minimization patterns in deep learning, and everybody should know that the very mathematical theory of general relativity is used in GPSes.”

Ortiz: “How did you feel when you found out you’d been awarded the Abel Prize?”

Uhlenbeck: “I was very surprised, as I do not pay much attention to prizes and awards, and I had done the cited research 30 or 40 years ago.”

Ortiz: “What would you say to a young woman wanting to pursue a career in math or science?”

Uhlenbeck: “I would underline the fact that there are a lot of job opportunities at every level for young people who have a background in math, computer science, science and engineering. Also, not to be discouraged by starting at a lower level, or thinking a little differently. There is lots of opportunity. The people who succeed are those that stick to and enjoy their work, not those who are super achievers.”

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