Conversations with Engineering Pioneers: Frances Arnold

Thu, May 16, 2024

In July 2023, NAE President John Anderson had the distinct pleasure of speaking with engineering pioneer Frances Arnold, Nobel Laurette and recipient of the NAE 2011 Draper Prize. Known for her contributions to chemical engineering, Arnold’s expertise and experience spans across engineering, science, and medicine, earning her the honor of being elected a member of all three Academies within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The full interview can be viewed as part of the NAE’s “Conversations with Engineering Pioneers” video series found on the NAE YouTube channel. Below are excerpts from Frances’s interview, edited for clarity and grammar.

Evolution is the best engineer on the planet.

- Frances Arnold

Directed Evolution

Arnold was the first U.S. woman, and fifth woman overall, to receive the Nobel prize in chemistry for her work in directed evolution.  

I figured out the obvious, which is that evolution is the best engineer on the planet. And that evolution can create highly complex catalysts, the enzymes, and fine tune them for all sorts of new purposes. What I did was to figure out how to use that as a forward engineering process actually practice evolution in the test tube. Like breeding cats and dogs, you could breed new enzymes.

I decided I would call my own experiments directed evolution…. I think Jerry Joyce actually was the first person to use directed evolution in the context of making new molecules.

You have to know where you want to go. Then you have know how to look for it. Because the first law of directed evolution is you get what you screen for. Which is not a trivial statement because if you don’t screen, if don’t look in the right way, then you’ll get something else.

Engineering Education

While Arnold eventually became one of the most decorated figures in the field of chemistry, her journey in chemistry had an interesting start.

Chemistry was wasted on me when I was an undergraduate, I wasn't mature enough to truly appreciate the science, so I got a D my freshman year in chemistry and did not progress in that field at the time. But by the time I made it to graduate school, I was ready. I was ready to appreciate how all the materials and chemicals in our world are made, all the things we use in our daily lives. And suddenly chemistry just became so fascinating to me.

All great science and engineering start as a pipe dream. The question is how long does it take to go through the pipe.

Overcoming Obstacles

In 2016, Arnold experienced the devastating loss of one of her sons. Despite this profound grief, she encourages both herself and others to live graciously through difficult times, believing that better days will come.

I think that there are ways to respond to adversity that are not helpful. But I've been gifted with a sense of positivity and gratitude. Gratitude that I have been able to experience so many things and be here to talk about it and share those experiences with others. I have two wonderful sons who are still living, and we miss William quite a bit, but I am now a grandmother, so good things happen after the bad things.

Giving Back to Society

In December 2020 Arnold was invited to join fellow highly-accomplished scientists to advise the president of the United States on science and technology. Despite the threat of a global pandemic, Arnold rose to the occasion.

When I got the call in December 2020 to come and serve in the White House for this President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), as co-chair. I was taken aback…. Take yourself back to December 2020; it was the lowest time. This was the pandemic. And here comes a president-elect that cares about science.

I just felt that I had to say yes, whether I was qualified, or not. I'm very glad that I said yes, because it's been an immensely satisfying experience to realize how devoted our civil servants are; people who work in the White House and the executive branch and all the agencies. How important the national Academies are to our country. And I just feel very proud of what happens in Washington.

As co-chair of PCAST I had some role in choosing what our first efforts would be in given the president’s agenda and what he wanted to accomplish in his administration…. We chose to look at wildfires, the technical challenges to fighting wildfires…. We have been looking at maybe forming a national adaptation plan for climate change and understanding the extreme tail risks of climate change in terms of extreme weather. We’ve been looking at the public health workforce. All these topics that don’t touch the chemical engineering that I do in breeding molecules but are so important to our society and to the health of our country.

They’re very different worlds, but they are tied by the same goals. To use science to do something good for the planet. To do something good for people.

To view more interviews with engineering pioneers, check out all of the NAE’s “Conversations with Engineering Pioneers” video series on the NAE YouTube channel.