Karen Ellen Smith

Karen Smith

Karen Ellen. Smith was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on May 9, 1965 and is still alive today. She began loving math early, in elementary school when learning how to “cast out nines” to check multiplication. From there she applied the same ideas and discovered, later in middle and high school, that she could do similar “cast outs” when in different bases, even learning the formal proof for this generalization.

While in high school she challenged herself and her teachers. She was eager to learn more, and says that “In high school, I essentially discovered for myself the projective plane, a two-dimensional geometry not unlike the geometry one studies in high school but in which parallel lines meet “at infinity”. At the time, I felt certain that one could develop an axiomatic system like we are doing for the traditional Euclidean plane in class, but I was unable to convince my teacher.”

Although she loved mathematics, it was one of her teachers, Charles Fefferman, at Princeton University that suggested she make a career of it. She listened to this and graduated from Princeton University in 1987 with a major in mathematics and a teaching certificate. However, there were some obstacles she had to overcome during her time here. She says that she had experienced sexism from a professor at while working on her degree. Similar things happened later when she was getting her graduate degree.

She taught high school for a year but was interested in research. So in 1988 she began graduate studies at the University of Michigan. It was here that she met Assistant Professor Juha Heinonen, who was to become her husband in 1991.

She has worked at MIT, but most currently at the University of Michigan. Through this time, she has written many papers, lectured all over (including Finland where her husband was from), been author to numerous mathematical articles, and has received many awards for her contributions to mathematics.

In 2007, her husband died of cancer. She wrote a letter in 2008 about her family:

We are mother: Karen Smith, big sister: Sanelma Heinonen, age 10, and twins: Tapio and Helena, who will be five in August. Our family dad Juha Heinonen, who we called Isi, died in October 2007 after a brief but courageous battle with kidney cancer. We miss him very much, but we are slowly adjusting to going on with life the way we know he would have wanted. … We live in a beautiful old house built in 1910 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, less than a kilometre from downtown. … Our family is multicultural: Juha was from Finland and our kids are all fluent in Finnish. We go to Finland every summer, have a sauna, and bake traditional Finnish ruis leipaa every week. But of course we live in America, and Karen is 100% American … .

Karen Smith continues to do research, one of which she was working on in 2009 where she was attempting to connect two areas of mathematics that are not currently thought to be closely connected.



“Cogito Interview with Karen Smith, Algebraic Geometer”. Thompson, Amy H. 2009. Web. 29 June 2014

Karen E. Smith. “Biographies of Women Mathematicians”. Riddle, Larry. Web. 28 June 2014

“Karen Ellen Smith”. O’Connor, JJ. Web. 27 June 2014

“Karen E. Smith”. Smith, Karen E. Web. 27 June 2014

Smith, Karen. “My Path towards Mathematics,” Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press, 2005, pages 372-381



One thought on “Karen Ellen Smith

  1. The information persented in your biography is yet again another example of the great influence that teachers can have on their students! Her high school teacher sort-of stifled her thinking (probably because it was so abstract and new!), and her Princeton professor encouraged her to pursue mathematics as a degree. Good thing he did! I was saddened to read that she experienced sexism and discrimination like Blackwell and Noether before her. As a woman, I should not be surprised, I suppose, but I am.

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