Lately, everybody wants to pick the brain of La Cañada Flintridge resident Frances Arnold.
That’s what can happen when you win the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, said this week that she has been stopped on the street in front of her home since her Oct. 3 win, sharing the prize with two other researchers.
“I’m on the front page of newspapers all over the world, so people who don’t know me are stopping me. But the ones who do know me send many notes — lovely notes — and congratulations,” Arnold said.
Arnold, 62, is Caltech’s first female Nobelist in chemistry, winning for “the directed evolution of enzymes,” according to a Caltech statement quoting the award citation. Directed evolution is a bioengineering method to create new and better enzymes in the laboratory, using evolution principles, the university said. She shares the prize with George Smith at the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom.
Arnold said things were much quieter before the win, of course.
“I am quite certain my life has changed,” she said. “My phone won’t stop ringing.”
Her Twitter followers increased from 3,000 to nearly 11,000 in a single day.
“People all over the world are interested in Nobel prizes,” she said. Her followers are also interested in her passion for science.
She said what she enjoys most about the award is sharing it with the 200-plus people who have worked with her in the last 30 years at Caltech.
“It’s a validation of their tremendous efforts and creativity at Caltech,” Arnold said. “They’re as excited as I am.”
When asked how she describes what she does for a layperson or children, she instantly answers:
“I breed molecules like you can breed cats and dogs,” Arnold said. “They make interesting and useful new molecules by mixing and mutating their DNA and selecting who goes on to parent the next generation. Just as human beings have done for thousands of years, but now we can do it in the test tube and speed it up a lot. And we can create things that help human beings live sustainably on this planet.”
She said the award is a wonderful validation that women can succeed at the highest levels in science.
“Look at the physics prize this year,” Arnold said, referring to winner Donna Strickland, who shares the award with Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou. “Chemistry was awarded in part to a woman. And I predict, as I’ve said in other interviews, that we’ll see many more coming, because I know there are extremely talented women in science.”
Arnold said there isn’t necessarily sexism in science, though she added:
“I think it’s especially challenging for women because they often have to juggle family, home and work and don’t have the luxury of being able to focus single-mindedly on achieving one goal. And that’s what it takes in many cases.”
In her own life, she acknowledged, it’s been a struggle to drop any desire to be a perfectionist.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at it, dropping that desire,” she said. “‘I’m not perfect but I’m good enough’ is my motto. So that’s what I tell my children when they complain. I study evolution, and survival belongs to those who adapt. Everyone faces challenges in life. How you face it dictates how you go. … It’s important to face those challenges. My way to face challenges is to focus on the good things that I have.”
She has also battled other challenges. Her first husband, James Bailey, a biochemical engineer, died in 2001 of cancer. In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2010, her husband Andrew Lange, a cosmologist, died by suicide. Her son William Andrew Lange died in 2016 in an accident.
An NBC News article said she thrived as a single mom, though Arnold took issue with the comment.
“I don’t like the way that was said,” Arnold said. “Nobody thrives as a single mom. I’ve thrived despite being a single mom.”
She said she learned about winning the prize when she was sound asleep at 4 a.m. in Dallas, hours before she was to give a seminar at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“That first day I lived on adrenaline,” Arnold said. “I had a couple of hours because I just arrived in Dallas. So the first day was just nonstop craziness. But then I slept that night and I’ve slept every night since.”
On Friday, she was taking care of her son’s French bulldog, named Steve. Her son, James Bailey, has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for two years.
“After he got out of the Army, he was in Afghanistan,” Arnold said. “He served in Afghanistan and then got a job as a technician at JPL. So I’m happy about that.”
She is proud to be an LCF resident and especially enjoys the local sights.
“I love Descanso Gardens, which is real close by,” said Arnold. She also enjoys shopping at Sprouts Farmers Market, Gelson’s and Trader Joe’s. She added her children went to the local public schools and she has lots of friends nearby.
“I love the quiet feeling of the streets, the trees, my neighbors,” she said.
Isabel Maxwell, who has been friends with Arnold since 2006, said she’s ecstatic about the win.
“She’s a phenomenal person, does great science and is going to make this prize really work for the benefit of everybody,” Maxwell said. “It couldn’t be more well placed or well deserving.
“She went from being a well-known scientist to a world-famous scientist. But she handles it very well and with a lot of grace.”
What’s next for Arnold is getting a good rest before she heads to Sweden to be officially honored in December.
“Right now, I’m planning for Stockholm,” she said. ”I have a large family and a large contingent of friends and family and former students and colleagues who want to join me. And so right now, I’m just trying to organize big parties.”
But she doesn’t think the newfound attention will last forever.
“It’ll die down. I can take it for a week,” she said with a laugh.