LCF Woman Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Photo courtesy Caltech La Cañada Flintridge resident Frances Arnold, a chemical engineering professor at Caltech, shares this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry and is the fifth woman to have earned the prize.
Photo courtesy Caltech
La Cañada Flintridge resident Frances Arnold, a chemical engineering professor at Caltech, shares this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry and is the fifth woman to have earned the prize.

Caltech chemical engineering professor and La Cañada Flintridge resident Frances Arnold has won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, her institution’s first female recipient in that category.
Arnold is credited with half of the prize, with the other half split between George Smith at the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the U.K. She was awarded, according to the Nobel Committee, for “the directed evolution of enzymes,” a process she pioneered during the 1990s and continues to improve today even after its wide implementation.
At a Wednesday press conference at Caltech, Arnold credited the academic “fearlessness” that permeates Caltech research. She said she was informed at 4 a.m. that day, hours after having flown to Dallas the night before to give a seminar at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“I had to collect my wits for at least 10 seconds to accept the call,” she said Wednesday. “It was very exciting. The committee calls and tells you that you’ve been chosen, at which point your jaw drops to the floor and you can’t say anything else.”
Arnold, 62, credited her young colleagues at Caltech who work with her in her continuing research with the Nobel Prize.
“This is really about them,” she said. “I didn’t do any of these experiments. I did experiments in the ’90s. They’re the ones who do it now, but we do it as a team. The Nobel Prize goes to me, but it really goes to all of us as a team.”
Asked about being a role model for young researchers, Arnold joked that she doesn’t recommend anyone follow her path (her career included work in solar engineering, mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering before she landed at Caltech at age 29), but emphasized that her role as an educator involved showing people how to find their own ways.
“We are all teaching the next generation by how we behave and what we do,” she said. “You have to find your own path. That’s my job, to show that it can be done and that people from different backgrounds and vastly different experiences can achieve things.
“No ideas come in a vacuum,” Arnold added about her research, citing Albert Einstein as the exception to that rule. “They really are built upon ideas from others. You had to try things and see what didn’t work. The current methods at the time were not leading me to anything better than what nature made to solve the problems.”
According to a statement from Caltech, Arnold’s research has resulted in practical use in “hundreds of laboratories and companies that make everything from laundry detergents to biofuels and medicines” and that these created enzymes “have replaced toxic chemicals in many industrial processes.”
“She’s taught enzymes to do things that no self-respecting natural enzyme would do,” said Caltech Provost David Tirrell. “Directed evolution has taken over the field of protein chemistry.”
On her future, Arnold said she will simply return to her laboratory and continue her work with her peers and students. As for her $500,000 share of the prize (“Is that how much I get?” she quipped), she said she historically has donated her awards and would continue to do so with this.
Arnold is the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry and this is the first year in which the recipients in both physics and chemistry have both included women. Arnold said this is a trend she predicts will continue as the sciences have opened themselves up to different demographics.
“We’re going to see a steady stream of Nobel prizes, I predict, in chemistry going out to women,” she added.
For additional information, visit caltech.edu.

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