A woman has won the UK's most prestigious award for a young mathematician, the Adams Prize, for the first time in its 120-year history.
Dr Susan Howson, 29, a Royal Society fellow and lecturer at Nottingham University, was lauded by the judges - an international array of maths professors - for her research on number theory and elliptic curves.
Previous winners of the £12,000 prize, awarded by Cambridge University, include the physicist James Clark Maxwell and geometrician Sir William Hodge.
Although cryptographers will use Dr Howson's work, she is a pure mathematician, choosing her subject "because of the beauty of the theorems".
This sets her apart from most of the other top women mathematicians in the UK, who are almost entirely concentrated in applied maths or statistics.
Dr Howson believes women are deterred from working in pure maths not only by the lack of role models - she had only male teachers as a Cambridge undergraduate - but also by its highly competitive nature.
"I think some girls are put off by that, and female undergraduates seem to drop out because they are not as confident as the men. Competition doesn't usually bother me, but I worked at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for a year and I was uncomfortable with the very macho atmosphere: who was working the hardest, staying the latest.
"I think women may be a bit less obsessional and single-minded than men on average, and since those characteristics can help with maths that may make a difference."
Statistics collected by the London Mathematical Society bear out the story that at every stage beyond school, increasing numbers of women drop out of maths.
In 1998 (the latest available figures) women comprised 38% of maths undergraduates. At postgraduate level that proportion had fallen to 29%, while just 18% of university lectureships were held by women.
Women made up 7% of senior lecturers and 2% - nine individuals - of university professors.
The biggest improvements in almost 10 years have been at the lower levels. In 1990 only 33% of maths undergraduates, and 21% of postgraduates were women.
At the top, the change is fractional: women have gone from four to 7% of senior lecturers, and from one to 2% of professors.
Dr Helen Robinson, senior lecturer in maths at Coventry University, also believes the working atmosphere in pure maths is a major deterrent to some women.
"Women are inclined to get discouraged, and people do discourage them. You still get people, though not as many as you once did, who say that women aren't any good at pure maths," she said.
"It's not necessarily intentional. Young male research students can seem extremely sure of themselves and women are put off by this. It's partly to do with the style of pure maths: you say something and someone comes back at you and says 'you're talking rubbish'. It's a very argumentative style in which people put forward opinions without thinking about them a great deal, expecting to see them knocked down. Women are less happy about doing that."
Dr Howson attributes her success to encouragement at Burley-in-Wharfedale middle school in West Yorkshire and her teacher David Womersley.
"Most of the time at that age we were supposed to be doing long division and fractions, but he took time off from that every week to do investigations and teach us how to really think," she said.
She has no mathematical background; her father is an electrician, her mother a secretary. "I was just encouraged at school all the way through to university. When I first arrived at Cambridge I found it quite overwhelming, but Corpus Christi was very encouraging too. I've never really encountered any off-putting attitudes or discrimination."
Dr Robinson, recalling her experience as the only female in a 45-strong postgraduate cohort at Warwick University 25 years ago, could not say the same. "I do think attitudes have changed now, but it was very, very lonely.
"There are more women staying on to do research, and gradually they are moving up the ladder. The British Women in Mathematics group and the LMS also organise meetings, aimed at encouraging research students. But when I was doing my MSc, if I gave the right answer to a question in a lecture and some male students had got it wrong before me, the lecturer would say: 'Look she can do it, and she's only a girl'." ********************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker