Spotlight on the Pioneering Work of Chemical Engineer Frances Arnold

Spotlight on the Pioneering Work of Chemical Engineer Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold is an American chemical engineer who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2018 in recognition of her work on the directed evolution of enzymes. She is one of the world’s foremost bioengineers and one of the few women to have received a Nobel Prize in the sciences. I was interested in learning more about her life and scientific accomplishments, and below, I have presented what I found.

Early life

Frances Arnold
Image by Bengt Nyman | Flickr

On July 25, 1956, Frances Hamilton Arnold was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to William Howard Arnold, a nuclear physicist, and Josephine Inman, née Routheau. Her grandfather, William Howard Arnold Sr., was a lieutenant general in the United States Army.

Frances Arnold grew up in the Edgewood, Squirrel Hill, and Shadyside neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. She excelled as a student, although she quickly grew bored and often ignored her homework and skipped classes. Frances graduated from high school in 1974. At the age of 17, she hitchhiked to Washington, DC, and joined the Vietnam War protests. She lived alone in the city and worked as a cab driver and cocktail waitress.

Studies in solar energy research

Frances attended Princeton University, where she studied solar energy research. In 1979, she graduated with a bachelor of science in mechanical and aerospace engineering. At Princeton, she studied Russian, Italian, and economics. She harbored ambitions of embarking on an advanced degree in international affairs and perhaps someday becoming a CEO or diplomat.

After her second year at Princeton, she took a year off to travel to Italy and worked at a factory that manufactured nuclear reactor parts. She then returned to the US and resumed her studies at Princeton’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. There, she worked with a team of scientists and engineers led by Robert Socolow. The group investigated sustainable energy sources, a topic that she would revisit later in her career.

After graduating in 1979, Frances worked in Brazil and South Korea. She then relocated to Colorado, where she worked at the Solar Energy Research Institute (now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), contributed to United Nations papers, and helped to develop solar energy facilities.

In later years, Frances explained that at the time, she had hoped to apply her engineering skills to help her country to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels and to help grow the US nuclear power industry.

Subsequently, Frances began to study biochemistry. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985, with a PhD in chemical engineering. In 1986, she began working at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1992, she was promoted from assistant professor to associate professor. She was promoted to full professor in 1996 before being named a Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry in 2000.

Fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

In 2018, Frances became the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She received a 50% share in the award, and the remaining share was awarded jointly between Gregory Winter and George Smith for their work on the phage display of antibodies and peptides.

Frances is considered a pioneer in the use of directed evolution to create new enzymes. With one ingenious idea and years of hard work, she effectively turned the field of bioengineering on its head. Recognizing nature as “the best bioengineer in history,” she decided to let evolution be her new partner in the laboratory.

When she joined the California Institute of Technology in 1986, Frances began experimenting with emerging DNA technology. She used evolutionary processes to her advantage, leveraging them to create important new enzymes.

Enzymes are complex molecules that can consist of several thousand amino acids, all linked together to form long chains and folded up in three-dimensional structures. She essentially used directed evolution to produce new enzymes. These new enzymes had revolutionary potential in a broad spectrum of scientific fields, ranging from renewable fuels to pharmaceuticals.

Recipient of many awards

The co-inventor of more than 40 different US patents, Frances co-founded Gevo Inc., in 2005. The company manufactures chemicals and fuel from renewable sources. In 2013, she teamed up with former students Pedro Coelho and Peter Meinhold to cofound Provivi, a company that offers pesticide alternatives.

She continues her research at Caltech, where she is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, as well as the Director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center.

In addition to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Frances has received several other prestigious awards over the years, including a National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the National Academy of Sciences’ Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research. She was also the first woman to win both the US National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize and the Millennium Technology Prize.

A legacy of achievement and inspiration

Frances Arnold’s pioneering research has revolutionized the development of enzymes, which has had a significant impact on a variety of scientific disciplines. Her theories have not always proven popular, and many of her contemporaries derided her ideas at the time. She has said that, when she first published her research on directed evolution in the 1990s, some scientists “looked down their noses at it. They said, ‘That’s not science.’” They thought that because she was relying on evolutionary processes to produce new enzymes, rather than designing them, the science behind her work wasn’t valuable. These scientists were proven wrong when the techniques she pioneered resulted in new enzymes with a range of applications in medicine, chemical engineering, and several other fields.

Frances Arnold is an inspiration for anyone who faces criticism for their ideas. “If you are going to change the world, you have to be fearless,” she has said. Shouldn’t we all take her advice?