Born in 1956, Frances Arnold is an American chemical engineer and Nobel Laureate, best known for her pioneering work with the "directed evolution of enzymes" – a technique that takes natural proteins and rewrites their DNA by accumulating mutations over multiple generations, bestowing scientists with the ability “to rewrite the code of life." This groundbreaking work has led to a wide range of practical benefits, ranging from environmentally friendly pharmaceuticals to the production of renewable fuels.
Arnold, the daughter of a nuclear physicist, grew up with science in her blood. After a short rebellious streak in her teenage years (she dropped out of high school to waitress in a jazz bar), she soon found her footing in academia and scientific exploration. Today, she is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at Caltech. Impressively, her studies on evolution have helped her launch three companies and secure more than 40 patents, earning millions of dollars for Caltech. In addition, she is one of the few active scientists to be elected to all three of the nation’s most prestigious scientific societies: the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences.
Despite barely passing high school, Arnold had almost perfect standardized test scores and made it into Princeton University, where her nuclear-physicist father previously studied. At Princeton, she chose mechanical and aerospace engineering because, she said, the department had the fewest academic requirements for an engineering degree. Arnold used any extra time at Princeton to explore other subjects, including economics, Russian, and Italian. After her sophomore year, she took a year off, went to Italy and worked in a factory that made nuclear reactor parts, before returning to complete her studies. A top student, Arnold graduated in 1979 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton, with a special focus in solar energy.
Arnold's long-term residence on the west coast has not denied her the opportunity of enriching the Princeton community over the years. Among her visits, Arnold returned to campus in 2018 to give a short talk at the Fall Organic Chemistry Symposium. Her talk had been scheduled for months, but after her Nobel Prize was announced, Arnold found herself a sought-after figure, especially because she was now the very first Princeton alumna to win any Nobel Prize. While on campus, she repeatedly expressed how her time at the university contributed to her later career. “If you want a great education — a great, broad education — and to be surrounded by thinking people, people who care about how our society moves into the future, this is an excellent place to do that.”