For the first time, the biggest prize in mathematics has been awarded to a woman.

For the first time since the award was first presented in 2003, math’s most prestigious award has been given to a woman.

Modeled after the Nobel Prize, the Abel Prize is awarded by the King of Norway to people who have greatly influenced their field of mathematics. It comes with a cash prize of 6 million Norwegian kroner ($700,000).

This year’s honoree is Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician and professor at the University of Texas. She also hold the titles of Visiting Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University and Visiting Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).


Uhlenbeck is best known for her work with partial differential equations, but has worked in multiple disciplines, including quantum theory, physics, and geometry.

Photo by Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study

“The recognition of Uhlenbeck’s achievements should have been far greater, for her work has led to some of the most important advances in mathematics in the last 40 years, Jim Al-Khalili, Royal Society Fellow, said in a statement.

One of Uhlenbeck’s notable contributions to the study of predictive mathematics was inspired by soap bubbles. The thin exterior of a soap bubble is an example of “minimal surface.” Her study of this concept has led researchers to better understand a wide variety of phenomena across multiple scientific disciplines.

“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, said in a statement.

The importance of being the first women to be honored with the Abel prize probably hasn’t been lost on Uhlenbeck. Twenty-six years ago she co-founded the  the Institute’s Women and Mathematics program (WAM). This organization was founded to empower women in mathematics research at all stages of their careers.

The Abel Prize is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel (1802–1829). He is best known for creating the first complete proof demonstrating the impossibility of solving the general quintic equation in radicals. This question had been unresolved for over 350 years.

Municipal Archives of Trondheim / Flickr

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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This article originally appeared on 03.31.15

Kids can innovate, create, and imagine in ways that are fresh and inspiring — when we "allow" them to do so, anyway. Despite the tendency for parents to freak out because their kids are spending more and more time with technology in schools, and the tendency for schools themselves to set extremely restrictive limits on the usage of such technology, there's a solid argument for letting them be free to imagine and then make it happen.

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