Frances H. Arnold
Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry; Director, Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center

Credit: Caltech

Huaxuan Chen, the RASIT Girls in Science Spokesperson, had the honor of speaking with Dr. Frances Arnold, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year, before her trip to Stockholm to receive her award. We are very grateful that Dr. Arnold has agreed to share her story and advice with aspiring scientists around the world.

What are your reflections, being the 5th woman to win the Nobel Chemistry Prize?

Dr. Arnold spoke about how she’s thrilled and exhilarated for the recognition of the work that she and her students have been doing for over 30 years. “It feels like hundreds of people are sharing this prize,” she says.

Where do you hope to go next with your research?

Dr. Arnold is working on continually improving the methods to create new chemistry and to use chemistry as a conduit to make the world cleaner and ensure the processes in our daily lives are operating in a sustainable fashion. She’s continuing to create new enzymes and develop new methods for protein engineering. In fact, she’s very interested in bringing new computational tools such as machine learning into the evolution algorithm to make existing processes more efficient.

Backtrack: When did you start becoming interested in science?

Here, Dr. Arnold spoke about how she’s always been interested in science, in one form or another. She grew up in the woods and has always found the biological world a fascinating place. As such, she continued this passion into university.

Who were some people you looked up to when you were a girl in science yourself?

Dr. Arnold’s father, a nuclear physicist, played a large role in her scientific life. While she had four brothers and her father could’ve easily focused on her brothers, he encouraged her to go into science and engineering. He told her that she’d always have an exciting and rewarding job as an engineer. For instance, the intersections in the fields of biology, chemistry, and biology are where exciting new things can come about and they can create new fields of research; this makes engineering a dynamic, constantly-evolving, and fascinating field of study. 

Why and when did you choose to go into chemical engineering?

Dr. Arnold stated that she didn’t know that she wanted to go into chemistry until graduate school. She had always done mechanical and aerospace engineering and was interested in solar energy in the past. However, following the political change in the 1980s, which moved the focus away from renewables, she decided to learn something new. She then entered graduate school and became immersed in the world of chemistry from there. She noted that sometimes we need to grow up a bit before we realize that the things we didn’t think were so interesting before can really open up as a result of more exposure and experience. Indeed, that’s how she got into biochemical engineering.

Have you ever gone through a difficult time or challenge in your life as a girl or woman in science? If so, how did you get through that?

Women and girls can face perhaps different challenges, such as lack of confidence, lack of support in their decision-making, and they also have many responsibilities to fulfill. Dr. Arnold gets through the challenges in life by looking at what she has as opposed to focusing on what she doesn’t have. She’s extremely grateful for the things she does have, and she believes that

“if you focus on the people around you and all the great things you have in your life”, life will work itself out.

In your opinion, do you think the glass ceiling is broken, and if not, how can we break it for careers in the sciences (and thus, make science more inclusive)?

Things are very different now compared to when Dr. Arnold was a girl in science.

To this day, she believes that the challenges we face need to make us stronger, that we need to stand up for what’s right, even in the face of bad behaviour on someone’s part, and that we must have the confidence to not let anything or anyone dictate our life to us. It’s especially hopeful that the world has changed, and that there are many talented women in science who are supporting one another. She has great confidence that if a girl wants to become a scientist, she will find a way to have a rewarding career in partnership with other strong and intelligent women.

What are your thoughts on the SDGs and what role women in science can play in achieving them?

Dr. Arnold believes that we need to ensure that everyone has access to what they need in their lives to live a decent life. This will be a challenge as the population grows and it’ll be a challenge to minimize environmental damage in the process. By shining a light on these issues, we can provide meaningful career paths. In other words, if people understand that STEM careers are essential to solving the SDGs, they would be inclined and motivated to go into these fields.

What remaining tips or advice would you give to girls in science around the world?

Dr. Arnold stated, “Don’t leave it for the men; it’s too much fun!” Girls in science should not run away from a career that is meaningful and that in many ways, both directly or indirectly, helps the world.

“It’s a place where your talents and creativity are very much needed.”

Thank you so much again, Dr. Frances Arnold, for showing us that the sky is truly the limit and that we should be confident, courageous, and determined when chasing our dreams. Thank you for showing us that anything and everything can become possible with hard work, persistence, and creativity.

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