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1st person of Korean descent wins Fields Medal

July 5, 2022 - 18:12 By Kan Hyeong-woo
June Huh(right), a Korean American mathematician, receives Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians to become the first Korean descent to receive the international honor in Helsinki on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Korean American mathematician June Huh has won this year’s prestigious Fields Medal to become the first person of Korean descent to receive the prestigious international award.

The Fields Medal, widely regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, is given to mathematicians under the age of 40 for significant contributions to the field of mathematics at the International Congress of Mathematicians held every four years.

The ICM, organized by the International Mathematical Union, took place at Aalto University in Helsinki on Tuesday.

The 39-year-old, who serves as a professor at Princeton University and a distinguished professor of mathematics at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study, was recognized for his work in the field of combinatorial algebraic geometry.

According to the Ministry of Science and ICT, Huh has solved various conjectures -- namely Read’s conjecture, which he proved in a 2012 paper by making heavy use of methods from algebraic geometry.

Huh’s studies have contributed greatly to the application of information and communication technology, semiconductor design, transportation, logistics and machine learning, the ministry said.

“To me, math is a process of understanding my own biases and limitations. More generally, it’s about wondering how the human species thinks and how deeply we think,” Huh said in the ministry statement.

“I‘m deeply grateful to receive a meaningful award for what I enjoy doing,” he added.

Naming Huh as the recipient for 2022, the ICM said he brought “the ideas of Hodge theory to combinatorics, the proof of the Dowling-Wilson conjecture for geometric lattices, the proof of the Heron-Rota-Welsh conjecture for matroids, the development of the theory of Lorentzian polynomials and the proof of the strong Mason conjecture.”

In a 2017 interview with Quanta magazine, Huh said he thought he wasn’t good at math when he was growing up. As a teenager, he was more focused on poetry instead, thinking that it was a way to express his creativity.

Among his research, he came under the spotlight for his joint work in resolving Rota’s conjecture. He received the Samsung Ho-Am Prize in Science for physics and mathematics in 2021.

Born in 1983 in California, Huh came to South Korea when he was two years old. He finished elementary and middle school here. He took the high school graduation qualification exam after dropping out of high school, and went to university in 2002.

He majored in physics and astronomy as an undergraduate at Seoul National University and went on to study mathematics at the university’s graduate school. Huh received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 2014.

Huh’s global honor came five months after the IMU upped South Korea‘s status in the organization by a notch to its highest Group Five level in February after reviewing the nation’s excellence in mathematics.

Huh plans to spend the summer in Seoul to continue research at KIAS. A press conference is scheduled on Wednesday with Korean reporters.