Dr Karen Uhlenbeck is the 2019 Abel Prize winner for “her fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory, which has dramatically changed the mathematical landscape. Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions” [Hans Munthe-Kaas, Chair of the Abel Committee, photo credit Andrea Kane IAS].
Uhlenbeck is the first woman to receive this award, though “it’s far from the first time she has broken through a glass ceiling” [Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine]. In a NY Times interview about this award, she claimed Julia Child as a role model, which seems like a perfect comparison to me because both Uhlenbeck and Child are bold and original thinkers who changed the world simply by insisting on being themselves in it and by knowing that the world needed to grow space for them to be.
I do not know Uhlenbeck particularly well, but she was a powerful voice in the department when I was a graduate student at UT Austin. I first noticed something distinctive about the department on my campus visit as a prospective student. Compared to my other experiences, the graduate program seemed significantly more diverse and supportive. In particular, I got a sense on that first day that women and people of color felt more at home in the department than at other programs and that (all of) the graduate students valued and felt bolstered by this diversity. The department was and is by no means perfect, and I’m certainly more sensitive to some marginalizing factors than others, but I could tell that something was different here. Building and sustaining this kind of culture takes many factors and agents acting together, and Uhlenbeck was a central pillar, like a force of nature for growing this community.
As the UT News piece about her award identifies, Uhlenbeck was part of creating multiple, ongoing, formal programs that support the mathematics community. But Uhlenbeck also did this work through all of her informal relationships with us as graduate students. When I heard of this award, I was immediately reminded of the ways that these former graduate students continue to mention the impact that Uhlenbeck’s support had on them over the years, so I asked them to contribute reflections. In what follows, you will find stories of the profound good that she did through both subtle and explicit acts of human decency. I hope readers will feel challenged to be the kind of advisor and mentor Uhlenbeck was to each of us.
Karen, thank you, from all of us. –Brian P Katz (BK)