Karen Uhlenbeck: Congratulations and Thank You

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)

Here’s a memory from my early days as a graduate student in UT Austin. Women mathematicians had gathered in the lounge for a brown bag lunch and Karen asked us graduate students to introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I said something along the lines “I’m Matilde and I do number theory”. She reflected on the fact that I said “I do” as opposed to “I study”. She said that it showed I was already a researcher, a creator of math. Her comment had a deep impact on me…

–Matilde Lalin

I had the privilege of being one of Karen’s last two Ph.D. students in 2008.  She was an incredibly generous mentor–meeting with me for multiple hours every week, sharing her immense mathematical wisdom, and being very blunt and realistic about the challenges that still faced women in mathematics.  But on reflection, I think that the most transformative part of Karen’s mentoring was that she treated me as though I was a real mathematician and as though I belonged in that world.  Like many women in their mid-20’s, I struggled with serious bouts of imposter syndrome (although I didn’t have that language then) which were exacerbated by the masculine atmosphere in UT’s math department and in my subfield of geometric analysis*.  From the beginning of my time as her advisee, Karen treated me as though I had something to offer her and the rest of the mathematical world.  Two examples come to mind.  First was right after I had given my orals.  A prominent mathematician, Jim Isenberg, was visiting, and she invited me to a meeting where they discussed a new problem Jim was working on.  I was a third year graduate student, and she gave me access to that level of discourse and genuinely solicited my input.  The second was the year after I had graduated and was a post-doc at the University of Arizona.  I gave a presentation on new work at an AMS sectional meeting at Baylor University, and Karen drove up to see the talk.  She sat in the audience and asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in the content.  Afterwards she had more questions, and we discussed the work as though I was a real mathematician.  (Which I was, of course, but for those still present self-doubts.)

Karen gave me the gift of seeing a model for what a female mathematician could look like as well as the gift of seeing myself through that lens.  I don’t know if she did it intentionally or if it just came naturally to her, but Karen helped me find the confidence to follow my own path into mathematics.

–Andrea Young

*Several exceptional male advisors and role models notwithstanding.

Karen Uhlenbeck had an incredibly important impact on the trajectory of my life even before she was my Ph. D. advisor.  After leaving UT Austin in 2000 with my master’s degree mostly because I believed I was not graduate school material, I found myself working as an actuary at an insurance company.  I hated it and while looking for teaching opportunities, I asked Karen to be a letter writer for some community college positions.  Instead of just saying yes (or even no) and moving on, Karen told me that I should think of returning to graduate school and that she felt I was capable of producing good work.  Due to the timing, it took me another year to return to UT Austin, but Karen looked out for me (and many other graduate students) while I was there, eventually becoming my thesis advisor.  Every time I have a chance to think about how much I enjoy my position at California Lutheran University and the opportunities it provides me both personally and professionally, I am so thankful Karen thought to say, “you should come back”.  I get to be where I am today because of her mentorship.

–Michael Gagliardo

To me, Karen Uhlenbeck was an integral part of my experience as a female graduate student at UT. She was always supportive of the women in the program and she did not shy away from talking about difficult issues that women face as mathematicians. At UT, and elsewhere, she founded programs to support women and she empowered women to run these programs. Through these program and other programs people have founded because of them, her influence is far-reaching. I feel lucky to have been in the same department as her.

–Brandy Doleshal

Dr Karen Uhlenbeck was enormously supportive of me during my time as a graduate student at UT Austin, from 2000-2006. In an environment which prized mental quickness and agility, Dr. Uhlenbeck might have positioned herself as a lofty elite, but instead she would wave away any notion of a hierarchy of talent and create a sense of equality between graduate students and faculty members. She gave advice at times, the essence of which has stuck with me: ignore whatever drama is going on around you – nobody in graduate school knows any more than you do. You’re fine. Keep working.

My best friend Shel and I had an inside joke, when we wanted to convey “cutting through the bullshit”. We would imitate Dr. Uhlenbeck: we’d lean back in our chairs, shut our eyes, and speak our minds frankly, while grandly waving one hand in front as if to dismiss what we were saying. I think this gesture reveals something about her core nature: her ability to sweep away distractions and create a calm space where you were considered an equal.

I could not be happier to share that this brilliant mathematician, so deserving of the Abel prize, is also the sort of kind, caring person who carves out an environment of support and reassurance for young graduate students.

–Betsygail Rand

Karen is very generous with her time. I wanted to entertain her, so I would go in to our weekly meeting and present most of the time. And most likely, she was not entertained, but just bored. In retrospect, I wish I had asked more questions, so I could have benefited more from the vast knowledge and deep understanding Karen has. Also, it took me several years after graduation to start addressing Karen as Karen instead of Prof. Uhlenbeck. Before it happened, I was thinking that I would be happy always addressing Karen as Prof. Uhlenbeck; there are few people that I respect as much, both as a mathematician and a human being.

–Magda Czubak

When I was a graduate student, I received a great deal of unusual support from Karen Uhlenbeck. One year, while they were visiting the Institute, in exchange for feeding their cats, Karen and Bob let me and two other female grad students live at their house and drive their cars (and park in their parking spots at the math department). We rearranged all the furniture and artwork. I’m not sure if they knew we did that. We tried to put everything back before they returned. Karen and Bob paid our outrageous air conditioning bills and continued to have their cleaning lady to the house (so they wouldn’t have to leave her without a salary).

We each had a lot of space. There were full shelves of books lining the hallways and desks in every room (including the laundry room), with views out over the gorgeous Texas hillside. We didn’t have financial concerns, we worked a lot, and cooked food together. I lived the life of the mathematician I imagined myself in the future.

Of course when she was in town, she was an amazing presence in the math department. She was a lot of fun, very real, and made the daily life at UT full of life. There was always a lot of activity around her offices and the GADGET* seminar.

There were some comments she made to me about being a woman in math, that at the time I didn’t understand, but now I do. She remains important to me although I haven’t actually seen her in more than 10 years.

–Angela Gibney

*Global and differential geometry every Tuesday

We invite you to contribute your own reflections, congratulations,  and thank yous to Dr Karen Uhlenbeck below.

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3 Responses to Karen Uhlenbeck: Congratulations and Thank You

  1. Brendan Guilfoyle says:

    I studied for my doctorate under Karen’s supervision at UT from 1991 to 1997. I can honestly say that, without her support at key moments, I would not have been able to complete. When I arrived, she had something of a fearsome reputation amongst the graduate students – at one time a computer game was going around featuring various characters with superpowers representing different members of the faculty – Karen’s avatar had the ability to turn you to stone with their intense gaze. Anyone who has talked mathematics with Karen will know that gaze!
    However, in person she was always friendly and helpful and I was delighted when she accepted me as a doctoral candidate. As a foreign student, I was excluded from the loan programmes that my fellow US graduates were tapping into to make ends meet. While I did have a Teaching Assistantship, this was a period of massive fee increases at UT – it went from hundreds of dollars a semester to thousands of dollars over the space of a few years.
    As a consequence, I became involved in graduate student activism, helping to found the Graduate Student Assembly (which still exists at UT) and a graduate student newspaper. At the time we were campaigning for fee waivers for TA’s, as it was manifestly unfair that you had to give back a month’s wages every semester – mostly for 9 “dissertation hours” a week which were in reality a 1 to 2 hour meeting with your supervisor.
    In any event, my high-profile involvement was frowned upon by the powers-that-be in the mathematics department and I recall being threatened Mafioso-style in an RLM elevator one day by a disgruntled senior Faculty member. Luckily for me, Karen took a different view and liked the fact that I was involved in student politics. Karen’s student days had been in Berkeley in the 60’s, so she had witnessed tear-gas going off in the classrooms etc. Her main concern was that I would give up mathematics and become a fulltime activist.
    As it was, I finished in reasonable time, made a career in mathematics and have kept in touch with Karen down through the years. Without her support throughout this period, I very much doubt that it would have been possible for me to finish the programme.

  2. Heather A. Dye says:

    Karen Uhlenbeck’s thoughtful support and suggestions made all the difference during a challenging time in graduate school. I am so excited to see her win this award and would like to congratulate and thank her!

  3. Mark Bowron says:

    I’m delighted to see that Karen Uhlenbeck won this award. Among the many memorable highlights of my brief time as a UT grad student/TA 1989-1991 were private chats with two future Abel Prize recipients. You can’t walk away from such encounters without feeling inspired about mathematics…I sure didn’t!

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