Trailblazing Bristol mathematician and first-time mum scoops ‘Oscar of Science’ stateside

A talented Bristol mathematician took a break from motherhood to mingle with A-list celebrities and world-leading academics at an awards ceremony in America to receive a prestigious accolade in recognition of her pioneering research.

Image shows (left to right): Tennis superstar Venus Williams, Dr Laura Monk from the University of Bristol, Dr Hannah Larson from the University of California, and actress Zoe Saldaña
Image credit: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize

Tennis superstar Venus Williams and actress Zoe Saldaña presented Dr Laura Monk, a Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Bristol, with one of the 2024 Breakthrough Prizes, dubbed the ‘Oscars of Science’ at the glittering awards ceremony in the Academy Museum of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles on Saturday, 13 April.

Dr Monk, who has an eight-month-old daughter, said: “Winning this award was one of the proudest moments of my whole life, second to the birth of Lily. I’m also so grateful to my husband Alexei, who is looking after our baby while I enjoy this amazing experience which is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Business titans Bill Gates and Elon Musk, along with music megastars including Lizzo and Katy Perry, rubbed shoulders with the winners on the red carpet.

Dr Monk said: “The whole occasion was hugely impressive and I certainly didn’t expect to meet so many A-list celebrities. It was quite a surreal experience when such famous people approach you and ask questions about what you do.”

Dr Monk won the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize for her research in spectral geometry, an area of maths studying the relationship between the vibrational modes of surfaces and their geometry.

She said: “My work takes findings from the world of geometry to analysis. This can be used to help fully back up ideas in physics, such as quantum chaos.

“I do this by a new probalistic exploration of curved surfaces, known as hyperbolic surfaces, like the shape of a horse saddle. The end goal is to produce rigorous proofs of hard results in this simplified model.”

Her award is especially fitting, as it was created in honour of pioneering Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, also a leading expert in this field,

who died of breast cancer aged 40 in 2017.

Dr Monk said: “Maryam Mirzakhani has been a big inspiration for me and my PhD was inspired by her amazing work. Sadly, we never had the chance to meet but she exchanged emails with my advisor Nalini Anantharaman asking questions, which we have since answered. That’s such a special feeling.”

The Breakthrough Prize celebrates research achievements of the world’s top scientists, awarding more than $15 million in prizes annually, including $50,000 for the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize.

Dr Monk said: “I was lost for words when I got the call saying I had won. The money is helping us to buy a house and we feel incredibly thankful.”

Dr Monk was raised in France and completed her PhD at the University of Strasbourg. She came to Bristol two years ago and instantly fell in love with the city.

She said: “The University is an incredibly welcoming environment and an exciting place for top-level research. The School of Mathematics is amazing and I was charmed by the city straight away, so feel very fortunate.”

Commenting on the array of celebrities, including Venus Williams, Jessica Chastain, Lily Collins, Alicia Keys, and Robert Downey Jr, Dr Monk said: “It’s funny because we are both strangers to each other, although I have of course heard of Kim Kardashian. Maths can be quite glamorous too, perhaps in a different way, and we get very excited about meeting other mathematicians and scientists famous in our world.

“I thought the journey would be too much for little Lily but I will of course show her the pictures. Hopefully she will be proud of me someday. Of course I can’t wait to teach her to count, but she’s more into music and rhythm at the moment.”

Dr Monk’s current research aims to provide a mathematical justification for groundbreaking theories developed in theoretical physics at the University of Bristol during the 1980s.

Professor Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Bristol, said: “Many congratulations to Laura and all the other hugely talented researchers who have won an award, as well as those who may have supported her on this impressive journey. Laura is a wonderful inspiration to fellow female mathematicians and scientists, as well as for younger generations who might be considering studying at the University.

“It’s heartening to hear about her positive experiences here and in the great city of Bristol more widely. The School of Mathematics is renowned for its leading research in many different spheres and the global impact of Laura’s work is highly deserving of this impressive accolade.”

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by American business leaders and philanthropists Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Julia and Yuri Milner, and Anne Wojcicki have been sponsored by foundations established by them. Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in each field choose the winners.