“I’m bouncing off the walls but I’m trying to pretend to sound calm and collected”
The new laureate Frances Arnold was interviewed moments after she discovered she had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
Frances Arnold: Hello.
Adam Smith: Oh, hello. Am I speaking with Frances Arnold?
FA: You are, hi.
AS: Hi. I’m Adam Smith from Nobelprize.org. Congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
FA: Thank you.
AS: You sound very calm and collected in the middle of the night in Texas.
FA: I’m not the least – I’m bouncing off the walls but I’m trying to pretend to sound calm and collected.
AS: I imagine … you’re away from home so perhaps somewhat protected from the immediate onslaught that’s going to happen today.
FA: Well, I’m annoyed because I can’t reach my sons. They’re sound asleep [Laughs]. So, yes, I’m protected but I’m also annoyed. They never answer the phone when mum calls.
AS: Well not in the middle of the night at least, surely [Laughs]. You started as a mechanical engineer, and now I suppose you are a protein engineer. Do you think that is part of the secret of your success, that you came from a different field into biology and were able to see things differently?
FA: I think there’s no doubt about that. I was able to look at the problem with a totally a fresh set of eyes. A problem that had challenged people since the techniques were – of site-directed mutagenesis for example, which won the Nobel Prize – were available. And I realised that the way that most people were going about protein engineering was doomed to failure.
AS: It’s a bold move though, to jump fields so radically.
FA: Oh, well, I have four brothers and I’ve jumped into all sorts of things over my life, so learning new things has always been fun for me. Changing fields has been fun, and I still feel that way many years later.
AS: Would it be fair to say that what you do is to sort of manipulate nature’s inventiveness for our human benefit?
FA: Well I think that what I do is copying nature’s design process. Right? Here … all this tremendous beauty and complexity of the biological world all comes about through this one simple, beautiful design algorithm, and what I do is use that algorithm to build new biological things. And to me it’s not … it’s obvious, it’s totally obvious that this is the way it should be done.
AS: Can you give me an example of one of your favourite things that you’ve been able to evolve?
FA: Well, what I work on now is … someone asked me ‘What’s the funniest thing or what’s the best thing that you’ve ever done?’ It’s always what I’m doing now. So what I’m going now is looking at this question of how do you evolve innovation. How does innovation happen? How do get a whole new chemical reactivity that you don’t know already exists in nature? How can I evolve a whole new species in essence, a whole new species of enzyme? And, so for example, making a carbon-silicon bond. Humans thought only they could do it, but we evolved an enzyme that does it better than humans do.
AS: And, absolutely, and I suppose nature’s doing this all the time. It’s coming up with new enzymes itself.
FA: Of course she is! Nature is solving all sorts of problems that we throw at her – how to degrade plastic bottles, how to degrade pesticides and herbicides and antibiotics. She creates new enzymes in response to that all the time, in real time.
AS: And I suppose that should allay the fears of people who say that humans shouldn’t be tinkering with nature. Well nature’s tinkering with itself, so it’s not so different really is it?
FA: Well we’ve been tinkering with nature for tens of thousands of years – look at a poodle! So we’ve created all sorts of organisms and biological things that wouldn’t be here were it not for us.
AS: That’s true, and poodles haven’t done much damage to us so far.
FA: That’s right. And they solve all sorts of problems. Look at the agricultural revolution and food. Look at our farm animals. Look at our pets. These are human creations.
AS: Humanity needs science to get over the hurdles ahead.
FA: That is really true. We need science and we need the smartest minds to work on these problems.
AS: You are already a member of all three National Academies of Sciences in the US; you have multiple awards. What do you think the Nobel Prize will mean to you?
FA: Oh my goodness! I don’t know yet. I haven’t had it very long.
AS: Let me rephrase the question. What does it mean to you at this moment?
FA: At this moment I’m absolutely thrilled and I can’t wait to get home and tell my sons.
AS: Really couldn’t be a better answer. Fantastic … well we very much look forward to seeing you in Stockholm in December, and thank you very much for talking to me.
FA: Thank you Adam. OK.
AS: Bye bye.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.