Adventure and Adversity: The Successfully Story of the Nobel Prize Woman Laureate in Chemistry 2018

Monday, 22 de March de 2021

Adventure and Adversity: The Successfully Story of the Nobel Prize Woman Laureate in Chemistry 2018

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay 


Adventurous Early Life

Frances H. Arnold was born in 1956 in the U.S.A. Frances as many teenagers had an adventurous life. She was the second and only girl of five children in her family. As a child Frances enjoyed leading outdoor explorations.

She later in life won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which is one of the most prestigious awards in science. But let us talk about what Frances was doing before achieving such a recognition.

She had several jobs since her childhood. For instance, she worked as waitress, department store clerk, and even as taxi driver when she was only 18 years old.

She was breaking paradigms when she enrolled in engineering at Princeton University at a time when female enrollment was still not common.

She combined her career with jobs such as driving a taxi and cleaning the house of a philosopher. With the money earned she traveled to London, Italy, and Paris motivated by her curiosity for different cultures and cuisines.

During her College studies she took time off to work in Madrid and Milan. However, she went back and obtained her degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering with the greatest academic honors in 1979.

Being in Milan she traveled around Italy with her Italian boyfriend by motorcycle. They used to spend nights camping and playing guitar.

Brazil Time

Frances have been traveling for pleasure and work. For instance, after graduating she attended an internship in Brazil to work in a project on solar energy. She worked with Professor José Goldemberg, who later became Minister of the Environment.

In Brazil she used to enjoy traditional dishes such as beans and feijoada. She lived deeply the Brazil culture. Indeed, she learned a bit of Portuguese language.

Scientific passion

Back to the U.S. her first formal job was at the laboratory of Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado. She then moved to California where she pursued a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in 1985. That is when she discovered her passion for developing research with proteins.

After graduating she hold different academic positions. First, she was a postdoctoral researcher, and then an Assistant Professor at UC Berkley and the California Institute of Technology, Caltech.

She innovates developing research in proteins. As a matter of fact, some proteins are enzymes, which accelerate chemical reactions. For example, enzymes can participate in reactions to create new molecules used in industry.

She has created new proteins with an enhanced activity. Such improvement has resulted in more efficient and environmentally friendly processes comparing with current industrial manufacturing.

She also started some start-up companies aimed at making new products such as biofuel and agricultural chemicals. These companies’ production use enzymes derived from the method developed by Frances.

Because of Frances’ successful research, she has won several awards for her work on developing proteins. For instance, in 2011 she won the Charles Stark Draper Prize.

Draper Prize “honors an engineer whose accomplishment has significantly impacted society by improving the quality of life, providing the ability to live freely and comfortably, and/or permitting the access to information,” according to the National Academy of Engineering in the U.S.

In 2016 Frances received the Millennium Technology Prize. Remarkably, she has been the only woman to achieve such prizes.

Millennium Prize was established “to tribute to innovations for a better life.” It rewards technological sustainable innovations address at mitigating climate change and improving quality of life. It also considers discoveries able to create socioeconomic value and promote global commerce.

As you can see Frances’ work can make a positive impact in environment.

Family life

Frances has also time for family life, and she is mother of three sons. She had her first son at 34 years old with Jay Bailey, an American chemical engineer. Bailey and Frances got separated at that time. Some years later she met Andrew Lange a cosmologist with whom she had two children.

She spent time traveling with her family to exotic places such as Australia, where they had a great time with Aboriginal people. Unfortunately, after that trip in 2004 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She then had two surgeries and debilitating treatments. However, she kept herself working every day.

After some time, she separated from Lange, who years later committed suicide since he had been struggling with depression during his whole life.

She got support from friends, her work team and work institution, Caltech. At that time, she reminded that “no one is guaranteed an easy life, but we can make it easier for others”, according to The Nobel Prize website.

Frances continued working and rising her children.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018

Recently Frances won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the directed evolution of enzymes.” Indeed, she won all her awards for her research in the same field.

How does directed evolution of enzymes work? It is a method that mimic natural evolution to create new and more efficient enzymes. Evolution makes natural mutations in the genetic material of organisms. Frances and her team made random mutations in proteins. And as a result, such mutations conferred new characteristics to these proteins. Researchers then chose those with the wanted new functions or with an enhanced activity.

What is the novelty of those new proteins? Such new proteins are used to drive chemical reactions to produce biofuels, textiles, laundry detergents, agricultural chemicals, and medicines, such as a treatment for type 2 diabetes.

How was France told she had won the Nobel Prize? By that time France had travelled to Texas to give a lecture. She was at her hotel deeply asleep when at about 4 a.m. she got a call. It was to tell her that she had won the Nobel Prize. She was totally sleepy and surprised.

The new proteins developed by Frances are not only useful, but they make the industrial processes more efficient, cheaper, and environmentally friendly. Indeed, some processes produce less toxic waste and do not use fossil raw materials.

Frances’ research reflects her concern about the environmental planet’s burden derived from human activity. She thinks that “science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment...” according to a Caltech’s report.

Finally, Frances’ experiences show that adventure and adversity can coexist with a successful life.


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018.

California Institute of Technology. Frances Arnold wins 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

National Academy of Engineering. Charles Stark Draper prize for engineering.

Technology Academy Finland. Millennium technology prize.


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Autor: Elisa Núñez
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