Photo of Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Environment

For pioneering research on biofuels and chemicals that could lead to the replacement of pollution-generating materials.

Frances Arnold on how traveling helped shape her approach to science

Frances Arnold has never cared much for ‘tradition.’ As a high schooler, she moved into her own apartment and paid the bills as a waitress and cab driver. As a chemical engineer and biochemist, she has found a groundbreaking way to harness her fierce independence and drive to succeed.

Arnold specializes in the creation of new proteins with an eye towards those that have applications in medicine and clean energy. What makes her stand out in her field is that rather than meticulously create proteins piece by painstaking piece, Arnold has come up with a way to take over from nature and direct evolution.

When she first joined the field of protein engineering, each experiment was slow and yielded results that had to be analyzed for weeks or months. Arnold turned all of that on its head with a quick and dirty approach that allowed her to run hundreds or thousands of experiments in a very short amount of time.

What she does is not all that different than the centuries- (or even millennia-) old tradition of breeding plants and animals for desirable traits: speed in horses, for instance, or larger kernels for corn. The difference is that, rather than waiting for favorable mutations to occur, Arnold uses cutting-edge biotechnology to cause the mistakes then inserts them in living microbes and screens for what she likes.

When she first began her new approach, “Some people looked down their noses at it,” says Arnold. “They might say ‘It’s not science’ or that ‘Gentlemen don’t do random mutagenesis.’ But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a gentleman, so it didn’t bother me at all. I laughed all the way to the bank, because it works.” You can follow her on Twitter (@francesarnold).