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Frances Arnold ’79 becomes first female U. graduate to win Nobel Prize

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

University alumna and California Institute of Technology professor Frances Arnold ’79 made history on Wednesday, Oct. 3, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the first female Princeton graduate to win a Nobel Prize. 

Arnold graduated from the University in 1979 with a bachelor of science in engineering degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. She is now the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. 


Arnold was honored for her work on “the directed evolution of enzymes,” according to a press release by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. She shares the prize with George P. Smith of the University of Missouri and Sir Gregory Winter of the University of Cambridge. 

Although Arnold is the fifth University undergraduate alumnus to receive a Nobel Prize, she is the only University undergraduate alumnus, regardless of gender, to receive an award in the natural sciences. Other Nobel Laureates affiliated with the University include Toni Morrison, Paul Krugman, and Duncan Haldane. Morrison, who is the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and is the only other female associated with the University to win the award.

Arnold is also the fifth woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Arnold’s innovative research on directed evolution has driven progress in both renewable energy and in pharmaceuticals. 

Her lab harnesses the natural phenomenon of evolution, the gradual change in characteristics of a biological population over generations. She directs this process by strategically mutating bacterial genes and screening for traits that are useful to humans. Her work has engineered protein machines that use novel biochemical systems.

“Directed evolution’s revolution … is bringing and will bring the greatest benefit to humankind,” according to the statement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. 


Chemistry professor Michael Hecht said in a University press release that Arnold is a “powerhouse.” 

“Other people are doing protein evolution as well, but she just does more of it and gets to real results that are really cool and that have real uses in the real world,” Hecht said. “And that, in part, is because she is an engineer in how she thinks. She’s not just exploring protein engineering because it’s cool, or because she’s interested in the origin of life, but she’s exploring it because she’s trying to make something that’s useful to people.”

As a result of her impactful research, Arnold has been recognized for her contributions in a variety of ways, including having the rare honor of being elected as a member of all three National Academies in the United States: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

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