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Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold '79 on her career, women in STEM

Frances Arnold wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 
Courtesy of Cal Tech
Frances Arnold wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Courtesy of Cal Tech

Frances Arnold ’79 made history this week when she became the first female Princeton graduate to win a Nobel Prize. As a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Arnold is also the first graduate of Princeton to win a Nobel Prize in the natural sciences.

Arnold’s work harnesses biological processes and evolution to breed enzymes that are of the utmost benefit for human beings. Her work has had massive impacts on the renewable energy and pharmaceutical industries.


Arnold studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University.

On Thursday, Arnold spoke with The Daily Princetonian about her career and her hopes for other women chemists.

The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell us a little about what your experience at Princeton was like and what made you want to study mechanical and aerospace engineering here?

Dr. Frances H. Arnold: I didn’t have the best high school record, but I really wanted to get into Princeton. I applied to Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering because there were absolutely no women, and I thought maybe my application would get the attention of the admissions committee. I thought perhaps I would switch out of engineering, but I never did, and I got my degree in 1979 as one of very few women who were studying mechanical and aerospace engineering at the time. I also applied to Mechanical Engineering because my father recommended that I get a degree in engineering because he said I would always have a job. And I’ve always had a job.

DP: What has your experience been like working as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field? How does your experience working as a chemist today compare to when you were at Princeton?

FA: Well, let me first say I grew up in a household with four brothers, so I was perfectly comfortable in a family surrounded by mostly men. Everyone was scientifically oriented; my father was a nuclear physicist who graduated from Princeton with his Ph.D. in the 1950s. So I was comfortable with science, engineering, and men, which probably made it easier for me to adapt to the predominantly male environment of Princeton engineering at that time. Now, things have changed, and that’s all for the better. Many more women are coming into science and engineering, as they should, because it’s a wonderful career. I’ve enjoyed every day of it. And as more women come in, the challenges change — they certainly don’t go away. It takes a lot of dedication to reach the highest levels in any field, and engineering and the sciences are no different. But it’s wonderful to have colleagues who are women. Women colleagues are supportive of each other, and I’ve enjoyed that change over the years.


DP: Not only are you the first Princeton female graduate to win the Nobel Prize, but you are also the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. What kind of significance does this have for you?

FA: I’m still grappling with that, since it’s only been about 24 hours that I’ve actually had it. But what I do know is that there will be a lot more women in the future winning Nobel Prizes, and especially winning the Chemistry Nobel Prize. I’m leading an edge of many talented women going into chemistry and engineering, and I predict that the Nobel Committee will see that and will recognize the talented pool with a whole train of Chemistry Nobels to women in the future.

DP: You initially started your graduate research at University of California, Berkeley focused on biofuels. What inspired the change to your current work on the directed evolution of enzymes, for which you won the Nobel Prize?

FA: My Ph.D. project was actually in protein biotechnology at the beginning of the DNA revolution. It’s hard to imagine now, but cutting and pasting DNA was a brand-new technology. We didn’t know where it would lead, and we couldn’t have predicted the many branches and outcomes of genetic engineering and biotechnology that we see today. But it was an exciting field. I wanted to be part of that, and I decided to become an engineer of the biological world, creating new enzymes and new molecules that didn’t exist before. To do that, I had to develop new methods because the first methods that were developed — say, site-directed mutagenesis and molecular biology techniques used for protein engineering — were not effective for making new enzymes. It was just too complicated a problem. And in order to engineer the biological world and make something that would be useful to human beings, I had to develop these evolutionary methods which harness the power of nature’s design process, nature’s design algorithm of evolution, in order to move forward and build useful biological things. It’s like breeding cats and dogs — which humans have done for thousands of years — but at the level of DNA, in the test tube, to create not poodles or hairless cats, but instead brand-new molecules that chemists enjoy and that hopefully contribute to our well-being and to bettering the planet.

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DP: When awarding you the Nobel Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that the kind of work you are doing with directed evolution “is bringing and will bring the greatest benefit to humankind.” What do you hope the impacts of your research will be?

FA: I hope that we will use these methods and many others to solve important problems of how do we live sustainably on this planet, have a good standard of living, have products and materials and chemicals and fuels that we need in our daily lives, but do it without damaging the planet and all the other creatures we share it with. I think biology is the best chemist and the best engineer, and that her design process, evolution, is the most powerful way to build new biology to solve human problems. 

DP: Given all of the exciting work that you have already done, what’s next for you?

FA: I haven’t had a chance to collect my wits yet to know exactly what the next steps are! But I will continue studying evolution, working with my brilliant students here at the California Institute of Technology, and enjoy seeing where their creativity and work can take us.

DP: As a professor, you have served as an instructor and mentor to the next generation of scientists. With that in mind, 20 years from now, what would you like to see happening in your field?

FA: I hope that we’ll see a lot less pollution and damage to the environment as a result of getting smart about how we make and use things, materials, chemicals. I hope that we will continue to support science and technology and the advances that come from those so that we can have a sustainable world.

DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

FA: I would like to add: go girls, go women! Don’t leave all this fun just for the men … Study science and technology, solve some important problems, and teach your children the joys of being a scientist and using science to make the decisions that impact your lives.