Linus Pauling Professor
California Institute of Technology
Frances Arnold is Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. She won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018, making her only the fifth woman in 117 years to win the award.
Arnold’s career has been that of a certified tech pioneer. She engineered solar panels to work in remote locations in 1979. Her academic focus has been on “direct evolution,” a process of creating enzymes with improved functions — in effect speeding up the natural selection process. These enzymes have been used to design more eco-friendly pharmaceutical compounds.
In 2005 she co-founded the company Gevo, Inc, which makes fuels and chemicals from renewable resources. The company is worth more than $22m. Another company, Provivi, researching alternatives to pesticides for protecting crops, has raised more than $100m.
This business expertise is perhaps why Arnold was in 2019 selected for a board position at Alphabet, the parent company that controls Google and all of its affiliates, including Deep Mind, Wing, Loon and Sidewalk Labs.
Arnold earned widespread praise at the end of 2019 for doing the normally unthinkable: admitting a mistake. As reported in Salon, just a few months after receiving the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Arnold published a paper on enzyme catalysts in the journal Science. Despite receiving praise for the innovations — with one publication identifying a potential to deliver new antibiotics — Arnold announced that she would retract the paper.
“For my first work-related tweet of 2020, I am totally bummed to announce that we have retracted last year’s paper on enzymatic synthesis of becta-lactams. The work has not been reproducible,” she wrote on Twitter.
Arnold adds that when she looked back through her student’s original lab notebooks, she found key data missed for experiments, which had gone undetected due to a lack of oversight on her part. The admission was celebrated online as a brave act of transparency, and reaffirming the ultimate goal: to advance science.
Arnold graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton in 1979 and completed a PhD in chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.Tags: chemistry, Nobel Prize, STEM, USA
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