Meet The Brilliant Chemist From Caltech Who Just Won The Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize laureate Frances Arnold poses with her students on the day she found out she'd received the award. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

To be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is an extraordinary achievement. To do it as a breast cancer survivor, and a single mom who raised three boys — well, that just takes it to another level.

Frances Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech in Pasadena, won it for her work in the directed evolution of enzymes, which, for those of us that aren't bioengineers, means she artificially makes molecules do stuff they weren't planning on doing, or makes them do their regular functions more efficiently.

After being woken up at 4 a.m. with the phone call telling her that she'd won the prize, she slept three hours, got on a plane, spoke at a conference, and then found room in her big brain and sleep-deprived schedule to talk to KPCC's Nick Roman to explain what she does and how she got to be the record-setting scientist she is. (Oh, and did we mention she's a KPCC supporter?)

The first thing I want you to do is explain the technical part of the research that you've done in enzymes. I think I understand part of it, but it's going over my head, so explain it to me.

Well, I make new molecules of life that do truly wonderful chemistry. Biology invented the best chemistry on the planet. I want to modify those to solve human problems. To do that, I used this process of evolution which is very powerful in the biological world, and we've learned how to tame that in the laboratory. So basically I breed molecules like you breed cats and dogs, and those molecules have specific jobs, right? They have jobs for everything from taking stains off clothes and laundry detergent to curing diseases.

And as I understand it there are environmental possibilities for the kind of work that you're doing. What are those?

One of the key features of the work that we've been doing over here at Caltech is sustainable chemistry. How do you make the fuels and chemicals and materials that you need in your daily life from renewable resources? Biology is great at that.

And when you began working in this field, I understand that you also brought new eyes to this because you came from a different background.

I sure did. I came out of mechanical engineering. I wanted to engineer the most complicated things on the planet — spaceships and airplanes. And unfortunately, that industry had fallen apart after the end of the Vietnam War. There were few jobs and it was depressing. So I switched into solar energy and I worked building solar facilities in the late 70s. But let's just say a change of administrations changed our national focus. And I decided to switch yet again and go into biotechnology. I came to this with the eyes of an engineer. How do you actually solve the problem? Whereas scientists were trying to understand how these complex molecules work, I was trying to build new ones and I didn't wait for that understanding.

When you were in high school I'm assuming that you had an intense interest in science and engineering back in those days. Were you encouraged to move on, or did you see obstacles for young women like you?

I never looked at obstacles. I imagine there were some but I didn't pay attention to those. I grew up with four brothers in a gritty part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I never had any doubt whatsoever that I could do whatever I wanted to do better than those boys.

Caltech professor Frances H. Arnold won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work in the the directed evolution of enzymes. (Photo courtesy Caltech)

What do you do now? There's money that comes with this award. Have you even given it any sort of thought about what you're going to do now?

Oh I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. What I'm doing is the most interesting thing I've ever done. It's always the case. And with the money, I plan to give that to charity.

Oh, really! Do you have any charities in particular in mind?

Well, Caltech would be an excellent place to put some of it. It's a jewel of a place. Everyone is brilliant. People talk to each other. We get the smartest students in the world and we have this attitude that you should think big and solve really important problems.

Do you get a chance to talk to high school students, especially high school girls, about getting into science?

I don't talk to high school students but the ones that come to Caltech are just right out of high school: freshmen. And they love science.

What kind of advice do you give them?

Do what you love. Try to do the hardest things and you will succeed. Not all the time, but sometimes you will succeed and you'll find out what your passion is.

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You can listen to a 2016 interview with Arnold when she was a guest on Take Two, after becoming the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize from the Technology Academy Finland.


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