Karen Uhlenbeck: The Struggle for a Place in the Sun

It is common to hear great mathematicians say they have always been crazy about discipline. This is not the case with American mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck. Passionate about books since an early age, she had a keen interest in science, so much that when she joined the University of Michigan, she intended to graduate in Physics.

It was the combination of exciting Mathematics classes with poor performance in practical Physics subjects that changed her mind. With a full degree in 1964, he left for New York to study at the Courant Institute.

After her husband’s move to Harvard, she graduated from Brandeis University (1966), where she also completed her Ph.D. in 1968 under the supervision of Richard Palais. In 1968, she held a temporary position as a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The following year, she also taught at the University of California.

In her search for a permanent position, she grew tired of hearing that she should go home to have children and quit mathematics. Renowned institutions, interested in having their husband as a researcher, claimed that they could not hire her because of the anti-nepotism clause.

In 1971, she obtained a permanent position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She did not like the town and realized that she would not be able to progress in her career and eventually divorced and took a position  at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in 1976.

Specialist in partial differential equations, she has been a professor of the chair Sidney Richardson, Department of Mathematics of the University of Texas at Austin, since 1988.

In 1990, her work was finally recognized. She was the second woman to give a plenary lecture at ICM in Kyoto, Japan. Among the many honors that Karen Uhlenbeck received for her work, she was elected for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985), accepted the National Science Medal (2000), the Steele Prize American Mathematical Society (2007) and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (since 1986) and of the American Mathematical Society (2012).