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(LEAD) June Huh becomes 1st scholar of Korean descent to win Fields Medal

Health 16:18 July 05, 2022

(ATTN: ADDS Huh's comments, info throughout)

HELSINKI, July 5 (Yonhap) -- June Huh, a Korean American mathematician and professor at Princeton University, has been named a recipient of this year's Fields Medal, a prestigious international prize awarded to mathematicians under 40 for achievements in the field of mathematics.

The 39-year-old professor, who also serves as a distinguished professor of mathematics at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study, became the first-ever scholar of Korean descent to win the award handed down by the International Mathematical Union (IMU) every four years.

The IMU Award Ceremony 2022 was held at Aalto University in Helsinki on Tuesday (local time).

The Fields Medal, first introduced in 1936, was founded to recognize and support younger mathematical scholars who have made major contributions in the field of mathematics. It is often referred to as the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Huh was born in 1983 in California but grew up in South Korea. He majored in physics and astronomy as an undergraduate at Seoul National University (SNU) and studied mathematics at the university's graduate school. Huh obtained his mathematics Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2014.

He was mentored by Heisuke Hironaka, a renowned Japanese mathematician and a 1970 Fields Medal recipient, who taught at SNU for a year as a visiting professor when Huh was in his last year of his undergraduate studies.

Huh is often described as a late bloomer, having told Quanta magazine in a 2017 interview that he didn't think he was good at math growing up. He said he took to poetry instead as a teenager, viewing it as a field of creative expression.

One of Huh's career-defining achievements is his joint research in resolving the so-called Rota conjecture. He was a recipient of the Samsung Ho-Am Prize in Science for physics and mathematics in 2021.

A file photo of June Huh, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University, provided by the Korea Institute for Advanced Study (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

"I feel a sense of weight when seeing the list of previous winners," Huh said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Helsinki. "There are even names of those who I consider heroes for making great contributions in the field of algebraic geometry, which I am researching."

Huh said it was "strange, overwhelming and weird" having his name included on the list.

In terms of his work, Huh said he does not engage in research necessarily with a specific goal in mind but usually tries to discover new mathematical structures and develop theories that suit them.

"When such theories are well established, by using such lenses, I try to see what I can understand that I wasn't able to before," Huh said.

Huh also stressed the importance of knowing how to give up when confronting complex and difficult problems.

"There are things that we aren't prepared to comprehend as humanity as a whole, or there are also instances in which I personally am not prepared to study and understand a problem," he said.

Huh said letting go allows opportunities for "new types of failures," which leads to more explorations. "I believe one can discover new and interesting phenomena in the process even though it might not be the intended goal."

Huh also lauded South Korea's fast growth in its level of mathematics in the past 10 to 20 years.

IMU in February promoted South Korea's status in the organization by a notch to its uppermost Group Five level after highly assessing the nation's excellence in mathematics. South Korea became a member in 1981 and started in Group One.

"I am aware rising from the lowest to the highest group (in IMU) within a span of 30 to 40 years is almost unprecedented," Huh said.

Huh said he believes "the fact that young (Korean) mathematicians in their 30s and 40s are excelling and talented, and the results of their studies" were reflected in the promotion.

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