Interview with Chemistry Laureate Frances H. Arnold on 6 December 2018 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
How did it feel to be awarded the Nobel Prize?
Frances H. Arnold: I think I was an engineer and a scientist from day one. I was very surprised and overwhelmed, terrified, happy, thrilled and bouncing off the walls. I was in a hotel room so I could bounce off the walls and nobody would see me. I was walking around in circles because I wasn’t allowed to call home and then after I called home, I could. I was walking around in circles because no one answered the telephone. It was a pretty thrilling moment. Then I really had to take a shower because I knew it would be a very long day.
How did your family react to the news?
Frances H. Arnold: It’s a bit of a funny story. My first phone call was to my son James and of course he didn’t answer the phone until a couple of hours later and his reaction, when he answered the phone was; What do you want mom? It was five o’clock in the morning and he was tired and so I said; James, I won the Nobel Prize and I can’t repeat exactly what he said here, but he said; Oh, my goodness! That was just … He was so thrilled for me and of course he jumped in the car and drove over to another house, where my other son was sound asleep and woke him up and then the two of them came to meet me at Caltech later that day. So, when I finally got back to Caltech, because all the flights were full from Dallas to Los Angeles, so I made it back about ten hours after the announcement. I made it back and Caltech picked me up at the airport and brought me to campus and all my students were spread out on the campus. They had made big posters. They were wearing their lab t-shirts and they gave me a standing ovation as I walked onto campus. It was really lovely. Then all my colleagues congregated in the chairman’s office and toasted me with champagne.
What does receiving the Nobel Prize mean?
Frances H. Arnold: I’m still working on that one. It’s a fairly recent event and up till today, winning the Nobel Prize has meant a lot of work. Putting together schedules and hearing from many friends and supporters, hearing from my old babysitters. I have heard from thousands of people all over the world, many of whom I’ve never met who just want to say how happy they are for me. I’ve heard from many people I have met and have long forgotten, but I’ve heard from many people who I care about, so it seems to be a shared event. It’s not just about me, it’s about everyone you’ve ever touched in your whole life and people you haven’t yet touched but now will, as a result of this prize.
How did you become interested in science?
Frances H. Arnold: My father was a physicist, experimentalist, and he loved fixing things and building things. He would allow us in the workshop every once in a while. I had four brothers so we were always competing: who would be better in math, who would be better at building things. I always had a flair for competition.
How has your upbringing shaped you?
Frances H. Arnold: Well, for one thing, as I was growing up, I was shaped by the fact that I had all these brothers, some older, one is older and three were younger. So I learned how to hold my own with the bigger boy but also how to boss everybody else around. I ended up organizing the brothers a lot but we’re also very close. In fact, three of my brothers are here with me in Stockholm. And we had friendly competitions for many things.
Was there a single moment you decided to become an engineer?
Frances H. Arnold: No, there wasn’t. Of course, as I was growing up, being a scientist was not on my list of things to do. I enjoyed science. I wanted to be a scientist, when I was a kid. I didn’t worry about too much what I would do, when I was going to grow up, but I tried lots of different things. I thought I would be a diplomat. Then I realized I had no diplomatic skills. I wanted to be a CEO of a multinational corporation, then I realized that was a lot of work, and I studied engineering because it was the easiest option and the easiest way to get into Princeton University at the time and I never left.
What do you enjoy about science and engineering?
Frances H. Arnold: I love solving problems. I think science and engineering is a fabulous career for people who see problems in the world that need solutions. My talent happens to be in coming up with technological solutions to those problems, but there are plenty of problems for which we will need solutions, so I think that’s a lovely way to use your skills and creativity in identifying problems and then finding clever new ways to solve them.
What traits are important to be a scientist?
Frances H. Arnold: The traits, that are important to be successful in science, include an ability to accept criticism. There’s plenty of it to go around and to benefit from criticism. If someone takes enough time to criticize your work in a constructive way and you are able to listen to that, of course you know you have to set aside the feelings of hurt feelings, say, perhaps that what I need to listen to what’s going on, why is this idea not coming across, what is the fault I have in the way I communicate the idea or maybe the idea really is lousy. But we have to be able to join the discussion.
Is independence an important trait?
Frances H. Arnold: As a scientist and end engineer, independence of course is extremely important. You have to come up with your own solutions to problems, you have to come up with your own questions, if you’re going to be a scientist and really explore something new. On the other hand, teamwork is important. So this wonderful balance of independent creativity, but then convincing all these dozens of students to take on some of these problems and put their own ideas into it, is the balance that we have to master.
Should scientists do work that impacts society?
Frances H. Arnold: I don’t think it’s necessary, that scientists work on problems of societal impact. There’s so many wonderful stories of how just curiosity has led to societal impact and that if you start off saying I’m going to solve climate change, huge problems or figure out how to purify water, you may come up with a solution or you may not. It may not be a particular person’s passion. I think science is beautiful and that those of us who have a passion to understand how the universe works, how communities work, how people work, how our minds work, just to understand that will also contribute to eventually solving the problems.
What aspect of science do you enjoy most?
Frances H. Arnold: I particularly like working on problem-solving. That comes from, probably, my personality but also my engineering background. Engineering is all about how do you come up with a solution to a problem but I should say that much of my work has deep science roots where, if we come up with a solution for a problem, what does that tell us about the underlying phenomenon? What do we learn? And evolution is such a great way to do this. I use this process of evolution to create new biological things that no one would know how to design. They’re too complicated but once I have them and I’d solved a problem, I can go in and do the reverse engineering. I can understand or try to understand how they acquired the new traits that they have and that way I can contribute to a more fundamental understanding of how biology works and how evolution works.
Which scientists influenced your work?
Frances H. Arnold: I have done a lot of thinking over the last few months about the scientists and philosophers and writers who’ve influenced my work for the last 40 years. I’ve been strongly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, a writer, by the philosopher Dan Dennett and by a whole slew of really creative scientists whose ideas I recombined in some new way and it’s wonderful to go back and view those ideas and see in retrospect how they were reassembled.
How important is a diverse background for a scientist?
Frances H. Arnold: The diversity of background that I have, which runs the gamut from studying Russian literature to aerospace engineering and chemical engineering, and I speak a number of languages, I’ve been interested in many things over my lifetime. I didn’t actually become a professor of chemical engineering until I was thirty years old. I was doing many other things before that including being a taxi driver. All those experiences, even if they were not the most positive experiences, made me who I am, and I think the diversity of experience makes me very different from everybody else.
What advice do you have for a young person starting their career?
Frances H. Arnold: I try not to give too much advice because specific advice doesn’t help. My path is different from your path but don’t be afraid of a path, take it. When you come to the fork in the road, take it. Do something, right, even if you don’t know what it is and where it will lead you. Do it. Do something and do it as well as you can. If you don’t like it, take another path. Life is not doors closing, it should be doors opening.
Is it ever too late to become a scientist?
Frances H. Arnold: I think it’s neither too early, nor too late to become a scientist or engineer. It may be hard to study that math, but you could do lots of interesting things just by being curious.
Why do you enjoy mentoring and teaching young students?
Frances H. Arnold: I work in a remarkable institution, the California Institute of Technology. We have 900 undergraduates and a thousand graduate students. It’s really small and they come from all over the world, just in love with science, and that’s what they want to do. They want to do science and they want to do it at the highest levels. So I’m working with these tremendously talented and motivated people. Their ideas are phenomenal. They haven’t been molded into some hard set piece of clay. They’re completely open and their creativity is just waiting to be unleashed. So I get to spark that flame and watch that creativity just explode. How could you not like that?
It’s very much a privilege to work with them. They’re nice people, they care about others. It’s my job to provide them the resources to do science; the environment that lets them feel free to express this creativity; the support they need when it fails, as it inevitably does; everybody goes through periods of nothing works and then to give them the credit also when everything works and they graduate and go on to form their careers. I have 250 children as a result of this over the years, many of whom are coming to Stockholm and the ones who aren’t, have all, you know, participated in some way in this event.
How important are your group and colleagues?
Frances H. Arnold: It’s all about the people. I’m one brain and sometimes there’s one brain that can do everything but that’s not my brain. But what I’m good at is encouraging 20 brains to work together and when you have 20 really good brains you can do a lot. So I like to bring those brains together. We enjoy each other, we’re friends and we like to celebrate our successes, so I have a group of many of those people who’ve gone on to other careers, who are coming back to celebrate this.
Did you have a mentor when you were younger?
Frances H. Arnold: I had several mentors as a younger scientist. People, whose work I admired, whose ideas I admired and who encouraged me to go and try wonderful things. People who found me a job in Brazil in the 1970s and people who supported my PhD aspirations. Throughout my career I’ve been lucky to have inspirational scientists.
How important is it to be a good role model?
Frances H. Arnold: I think it’s enjoyable to inspire the next generation of scientists. I try to avoid the moniker role model because there are many things I’ve done that I certainly would not want to model for anyone. Life is challenging and we all have to go through ups and downs, but I would love in any way if I can inspire people to keep going through the hard parts. Science is not easy. This is a hard job and you have to be willing to take their criticism and you have to be willing to take those failures, but the joys far outweigh the difficulties in my mind.
How do you deal with challenges?
Frances H. Arnold: Well, I keep going because if I don’t solve this problem I’ll go to another problem, right? I love problem-solving but I haven’t chosen any one specific problem. I define my problems and if you define your problems maybe you can even come up with problems people didn’t even know were problems and then, when you’ve solved it, they realized, hey, that was a really interesting problem. So that’s one way to get around the problem of failure.
How can we encourage and help women in science?
Frances H. Arnold: I think we’re doing, we’re starting to do that. What I’m finding is, that in my field in chemistry, there are a lot of really bright, strong women doing chemistry and they’re doing great chemistry. It’s a challenge of course to juggle everything. Of course, I think women are the best jugglers. I don’t know anybody who juggles more things than women do but we also take on a lot to juggle, so these are the challenges, to encourage women to take on yet more balls in the air and say you can do this and you can actually enjoy it as well.
Has being a woman caused challenges in your career?
Frances H. Arnold: I’m sure there are many challenges that I’ve encountered. I have to say my personality is that I’m blissfully unaware if someone doesn’t like what I do. I’ve always been able to say: Well sorry, that’s who I am and that’s what I like to do. I think that having the four brothers helped to dare. So many of the challenges, where people would look at my work and for example disregard its importance or say it’s not science, which is criticism I had early on, I could just say: Well, I’m going to do it anyway.
Do you think more women are taking up science careers?
Frances H. Arnold: I think the progress of women taking on careers at universities in science and technology, the progress has been slow but it has been somewhat steady. It’s still not good enough. I don’t see the 50% parity that I see at undergraduate level, for example at Caltech, 50% of the undergraduates are women but only 20% of the professors. To some extent, that’s a time difference and maybe in ten years that will change but I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s something systemic that is holding women back from wanting to do this job. I think if they want to do the job they could do it and they could get the jobs but for some reason a number of them say early on: Well, I don’t want to be like you, I don’t want to work as hard as you do, I don’t want to have all these responsibilities because I’d like to focus elsewhere. It’s not easy to do everything.
What can universities do to help women in science?
Frances H. Arnold: It is something that the system can help with and many improvements have been made. When I had a baby in 1990, my university had no maternity policy because no one had had a baby before, so that had to be developed and now everybody has babies but that was a new phenomenon. And we had to go through the process of how do we support women, so that they can succeed and can have all the other things that everyone wants.
What is your advice for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Frances H. Arnold: My favorite advice for young women who want to do science and engineering is, by all means do it even if you don’t want to do it. Don’t leave it for the men because it’s so much fun. It’s fun, it’s important, it’s really thrilling to use your creativity to do useful things for people. Don’t leave it for the men.
Do we need to encourage more people to take up science and engineering?
Frances H. Arnold: I think everybody needs to know something about science and engineering. Maybe they don’t go and get a degree in it, but we need a scientifically literate population. Science and technology is a future. It’s the future of the planet. Without science and technology we won’t feed 10 billion people, we won’t provide water or we won’t have cities that are even worth living in. It’s science and technology so everybody has to do it and most certainly women are going to play a huge role in the future of science and technology because that’s where 50% of the best minds are.
What applications from your work are you most proud of?
Frances H. Arnold: The wonderful thing about evolution is that here is a design process that works at all scales from molecules to ecosystems. One design algorithm that solved everything in life created everything in the living world. What I realized is that we’re just at the beginning of using evolution to move into the future. So what that means is that these processes, that we pioneered many years ago, have started to be used by hundreds of people, thousands of people to do very creative things with real applications. For example pharmaceuticals are being manufactured using enzymes that have been optimized by directed evolution. That’s important because they used to be made using toxic metals and processes that would generate tons, literally tons of waste products. Now they’re made using a clean enzyme process.
I brought here as one of my guests to Stockholm, a young man who started a company. He got his PhD in my lab doing directed evolution and he recently started a company that’s replacing pesticides with insect pheromones; it turns out if you spray a little bit of an insect pheromone in a field, you can confuse males. When you confuse the male insects, they don’t mate. No caterpillars, the crop damage is not there and it’s a wonderful organic replacement for dumping pesticides onto the planet, all made by synthetic biology by engineering biological systems to make chemicals that they don’t normally make. And these applications are thrilling to me because I see a sustainable future for the planet by using some of these design processes and designed molecules that nature invented.
How can your work help the environment?
Frances H. Arnold: I started my career back in the 1970’s working on solar energy when President Carter was our leader and the United States had a national goal of 20% renewable energy by the year 2000. It was a shame that that national goal of course went by the wayside when there was a change of administration and I felt that my career path in solar energy might be somewhat limited so I switched out of solar energy and went into biotechnology at the beginning of the DNA revolution. I stayed with renewable energy though, looking at ways we could replace pumping oil out of the ground and using biological systems then and I’ve stayed with that passion for replacing dirty chemical processes with clean biological processes for many years, because I care deeply about our natural world and how we can maintain a beautiful natural world, all these interesting products of evolution, lions and tigers and rhinos and monkeys and even insects. These things are beautiful, they’re beautiful products of evolution and we will be greatly impoverished if we do not make space for all these other things that we admire.
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