In 2018, Frances Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the directed evolution of enzymes,” making her the fifth woman to receive the award in its 117 years of existence, and the first American woman.
In May, she visited BioInnovation Institute to give a Talk at the Square about how excellence in science impacts innovation. During her career, she has co-founded four companies, but despite her interest in entrepreneurship she keeps coming back to science.
She received her undergraduate degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University in 1979 and her graduate degree in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1985. She joined Caltech as a visiting associate in 1986 and was named professor in 1996. In 2000, she was named the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry and in 2013, she became the director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center at Caltech.
We asked her about her ambitions and how biotech can change the world.
What were your ambitions when you graduated in 1985 from Berkeley?
It was the beginning of the DNA revolution in the early 1980s. I wanted to become an engineer of the biological world to recode life and make enzymes better than what nature provided us. I thought, why not modify the enzyme sequence to adapt them to new functions?
Only four women before you have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Does that concern you?
Not really. When I started there were few women in the field, and I was the first female professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Not many women have won the Nobel Prize because the pipeline has been small, but more women are coming up and they are doing a great job, so I am not overly concerned.
What does it mean to you to have received the Nobel Prize?
It has never been a driving force to win a Nobel Prize, but it is both a huge honor and a heavy obligation. It is not only a recognition from my peers but the whole world, so I have to behave myself now.
Science really is a creative endeavor. Anyone can do incremental work – you can even teach a machine to do that – but to generate useful new ideas and fields is harder and takes both craft and some luck.
How is biotech changing the world?
It is truly remarkable that we can now cut, paste, write, edit, and, with evolution, even compose DNA. We can read DNA and see how life evolved. We had Darwin tell us that we are part of one big tree, but now we can actually see it in the DNA.
Now, I would like to see us use the best chemists and engineers in the biological world – the microbes – to figure out how we can live sustainably so we don’t destroy our natural world. In the past century, the industrial world belonged to chemists, and maybe the next century it will belong to biologists. Maybe chemists and biologists will even learn to work together.