Joan and Joseph Birman Research Prize 2015


The inaugural 2015 Joan & Joseph Birman Research Prize in Topology and Geometry is awarded to J. Elisenda Grigsby in recognition of her pioneering and influential contributions to low-dimensional topology, particularly in the areas of knot theory and categorified invariants. Her research has centered on the interplay between the combinatorial theory of Khovanov homology and the more geometric Heegaard-Floer homology. World leaders in the field have praised her fundamental contributions, noting that her work both connects and unifies structures in geometric, symplectic, and contact topology, homological algebra, and representation theory. To single out just one of her many outstanding results, she and her collaborator Wehrli discovered that Khovanov’s categorification of the n-colored Jones polynomial detects the unknot when n>1. This work has generated a great amount of excitement and activity in the field and was described by a leading expert as “one for the history books”.

Eli Grigsby is a talented young mathematician who has established herself as a leader in a rapidly developing area that changed the landscape of low-dimensional topology. She was the recipient of an NSF postdoctoral fellowship and DMS research grant, and currently holds an NSF CAREER award. She has a track record of impressive results, and she has provided leadership in her field. Grigsby clearly merits the distinction of being the first mathematician to receive the Joan & Joseph Birman Research Prize in Topology and Geometry.


I am deeply honored to be receiving this award, especially since Joan Birman is a personal hero of mine. Her work laid the foundations for much of my own; the field of low-dimensional topology would be far poorer without her contributions. Her mathematical accomplishments are particularly impressive in light of the fact that she received her PhD only after a 15-year detour in industry, during which she also had 3 children. She is without question one of the most amazing people I have ever known.

Many thanks to the AWM, not only for establishing this award, but also for connecting me to a whole community of women whose mathematics and life-stories are similarly inspiring. I am profoundly grateful as well to Joan and Joseph Birman for the thoughtfulness and generosity they exhibited in endowing this award. Of course, I am forever in debt to my tirelessly supportive advisors, Rob Kirby and Peter Ozsváth, along with the rest of my extended mathematical “family.” Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues at Boston College, both for their nomination and for making the BC math department such an exciting place to learn and do mathematics.