First female winner of mathematics prize

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The Independent Online

A prize for young British mathematicians has been awarded to a woman for the first time in its 120-year history.

Dr Susan Howson, 29, a Royal Society fellow and Nottingham University lecturer, was awarded the £12,000 Adams Prize after her research was judged to be world class by an international panel of mathematics professors.

Her prize-winning work concerned a branch of number theory involving "elliptic curves", one of the oldest areas of mathematics, which has important applications for cryptography – the writing and breaking of codes.

Dr Howson said: "I'm pretty surprised I've won and I'm shocked that there's any interest in it. But if a little bit of publicity encourages girls to pursue maths, I'll be pleased."

Dr Howson is unusual, not only because she is a female mathematician, but by having chosen to specialise in pure maths. It tends to be more male-dominated and competitive than other branches of mathematics.

She said: "You need quite a lot of confidence for pure maths, as academics can sometimes get quite aggressive and competitive. Less confident women can be put off. I want to see more female research students coming along. But I know it'll take a little time to filter up."

The Adams Prize, awarded by Cambridge University each year to a young, UK-based mathematician – is named after the mathematician John Couch Adams and commemorates his discovery of the planet Neptune through calculation of thethe orbit of Uranus.

Dr Howson attributes her interest in maths to her teacher, David Womersley, when she was an 11-year-old pupil at Burley-in-Wharfedale Middle School near Bradford.

She said of her former teacher: "Instead of going through the text books he taught us some real stuff – how to think and to bring out the creative and investigative elements of maths."

She intends to use some of the prizemoney for research and put the rest towards a deposit on a house.