The Number Of Female Nobel Laureates Grows By Two

12:37 minutes

a woman in a lab wearing safety glasses holding up a beaker filled with liquid up to the light
Dr. Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Credit: Caltech

This week the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, and medicine awarded its top scientists with its highest honor, the Nobel Prize. And this year, the annual celebration of scientific greatness was punctuated by a historic achievement: For the first time ever two female scientists won the award for both physics and chemistry, Dr. Donna Strickland and Dr. Frances Arnold.

Dr. Frances Arnold was awarded the prize in chemistry for engineering enzymes to have specific traits. Today, thousands of laboratories use these methods to do things no one ever thought of, including to create proteins that edit genomes with perfect precision.

[Are non-native species dangerous… or are we just prejudiced against them? Science Friday’s Undiscovered podcast investigates.]

But back in in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, gene editing was only a glimmer in someone’s eye. At the time Dr. Arnold was completing the work that would win her a future Nobel Prize, she was the only female chemist in her department and the ninth women ever to be hired at CalTech. This week she became the fifth woman to be awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry—an elite group Dr. Arnold predicts will grow into “a train of Nobel prizes for women.” She joins Ira to discuss her award and the legacy of female Nobel laureates.

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Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold is recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on the Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Frances Arnold. She’s only the fifth woman to ever be awarded the prize in chemistry. Welcome to Science Friday.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: It’s so nice to have you. Congratulations.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, thank you. I’m still stunned.

IRA FLATOW: What is more stunning? Is it the fact that you won the prize? Or is there some part of it– the fact that a woman was chosen to win the prize?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, of course I’m thrilled to be chosen. I hope it’s not just because I’m a woman, but I’m also thrilled to be a woman who won the prize.

IRA FLATOW: We had Sarah Kaplan just on, of The Washington Post, saying that in 2019 that the Nobel Committee has directed people to look more to inclusive.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, that’s good. There are a lot of brilliant women who do chemistry and do chemistry at the highest levels. So I think that’s a good thing, and we’ll see more Nobel Prizes to women.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think you’ll be an inspiration to some women who are thinking about science?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I hope so.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Well, let’s talk about– just in a couple of minutes before we have to take the break, what do you think that your– in your work, what your greatest contribution so far has been?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I teach some of the smartest people in the world who come to the California Institute of Technology to do science. And over my career, I’ve worked with hundreds of, really, the smartest people in the world. And I would hope that my greatest contribution is the sum of their creativity and contributions.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Do you feel like– I’ve looked at your career. You started out and sort of went in all kinds of different directions. What finally got you to where you are?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, sometimes it’s important to go in different directions. You learn different ways of thinking that you can put together in new ways. Finally, I stumbled on biotechnology at the beginning of the DNA revolution. And the ability to engineer the most complicated things on the planet, biological systems, the guts in your– the microbes in your gut– that’s where I ended up, and I’ve been ever since. I just love it.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to talk more. Stay with us, please. We’re going to talk more with Dr. Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She is the Linus Pauling professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering, and chemistry at Caltech, and a board member of Illumina, the gene sequencing company in San Diego. If you’d like to talk with Dr. Arnold, we’re very happy to have you. You can give us a call, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us, @SciFri. We’ll be right back after this break.

I’m Ira Flatow. You’re listening to Science Friday. We’re talking with Dr. Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Hey, a lot of people think you’re a scientist, but you are a very proud engineer, are you not?


IRA FLATOW: Tell us what the difference is.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I love to build things. I like to make new things that didn’t exist before. Of course, chemists do that as well. They build new molecules. So we’re blending together chemistry and engineering in evolution of new proteins.

IRA FLATOW: How do you build that? I was watching a TED Talk you gave. It was quite fascinating. And you talked about being able to sit down at a keyboard and type out a recipe for some form of new genetics, mail it out. And what, a new gene comes back to you?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Yes. It’s really amazing. It’s changed so much in the 30 years that I’ve been doing this so that today you really can type out a DNA sequence. Now, whether it’s a recipe is a different story, and we can talk about that. But you can type out a DNA sequence, email it off to your favorite supplier of DNA, and they will send you back, in the mail, that DNA.

IRA FLATOW: You say in that talk that, I want to write new DNA. What does that mean to you?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Actually, it’s easy to write new DNA. What’s hard is composing it. You think about it, DNA is the code of life. It’s the product of almost four billion years of evolution. We don’t know how to compose new DNA. We can write it. We can read it. We can edit it, but we don’t know how to compose it. How do you compose something that encodes a complex biological function that didn’t exist before?

IRA FLATOW: So what is the problem in the composition? Why can’t you compose it?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Because we don’t understand how DNA encodes function. Remember, biology, molecular biology is a brand new discipline. It’s been around– the structure of DNA was published in 1953, so it’s not been understood but for a very short time. And how DNA goes through all the complicated things of a cell, and makes biological molecules, and codes the structure and functions of these biological molecules is a brand new field. And we still don’t understand those rules.

IRA FLATOW: So what do you mean, then, and what do people mean when you say, the directed evolution of something? What does that process mean?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, it’s just like breeding. We’ve been breeding cats, dogs, race horses, lab rats, corn for thousands of years without really manipulating the DNA directly. But now that we can synthesize DNA and put it in a test tube, I can go direct to the DNA and combine DNA from different sources, different species.

I can dial in levels of random mutations. I can direct mutations. So I have control over the underlying DNA diversity. And then I decide who goes on to parent the next generation.

IRA FLATOW: And then how do you get a useful product, then, of that? What’s the next step?

FRANCES ARNOLD: So you put the DNA into a microbe, and they start breeding it as if it were their own. And they then take the DNA and create the proteins that the DNA encodes. Then I, as the breeder of molecules, so to speak, I have to decide who is better than what I started with. Which one of those microbes makes a better protein? And that’s called good, old-fashioned analytical chemistry. I take the DNA out of that and feed it back. And I do it all over again.

IRA FLATOW: Is it sort of creating life in that cell as a new– you’re creating a new form of life, are you not?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I think that’s probably exaggerating because life was there for me to work with. We’re using the tools of biology to make new things. I’m making new proteins. They’re not alive, but they do do some things inside of cells.

IRA FLATOW: But you need this cell to help you make the protein.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, actually– so you don’t have to have the cell. There’s now very powerful systems where you can do everything, from DNA to protein, inside of a test tube with no cells at all.

IRA FLATOW: And so where do you eventually see this research going? What is your ultimate goal, here?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Ira, my ultimate goal is to allow human beings to use the power of biology, the power of biology to do chemistry, to make molecules, to make materials, to make therapeutic agents and pharmaceuticals, and basically all the things we need in our daily lives, from renewable resources without producing excess waste.

IRA FLATOW: I saw in your talk you said, I have fun forcing molecules to have sex.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Oh, yes. I do.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about that.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, if you think about sex, you have to wonder why nature would devise such a strange process and have all these– half the population that doesn’t carry the next generation. So there has to be some benefit to recombining your DNA with somebody else’s. And that benefit is the innovation that comes around. If you recombine DNA, you get progeny. You know, recombine DNA that encodes something novel.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two before we have to go. Let’s go to Adrian in Hamden. Hi, Adrian.

AUDIENCE: Hi. This is [? Adnan ?] in Hamden. I grew up in Southeast Asia, where my parents, my cousins, everyone around me were just studying either math or engineering. My son, who is about 2 and 1/2 years old– what I’m trying to figure out how to identify his mindset, whether it be towards chemistry, sports, math.

So it may not be a completely relevant question, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. How to identify your kids’ or younger generations’ skill set so that they can go towards chemistry, or science, or physics.

IRA FLATOW: Well, did you know, did you know at an early age, Dr. Arnold, that you wanted to do this?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I was lucky. My father was a nuclear physicist. And he always thought that girls could do math just as well as boys could, so he never discouraged me. And I also had four brothers to compete with, and I liked being the winner. So I had a father who encouraged my natural tendency, never discouraged it. And I had plenty of people to compete with.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, I hear this from so many scientists we’ve talked to over the years, that they had a role model, a mentor, somebody, it could even be their parents, who kept them– kept alive and encouraged their interest in science. Same thing for you, it seems.

FRANCES ARNOLD: It seems so. And I miss my father. He passed away two years ago, but he would have loved this news.

IRA FLATOW: And he’s the right dad to answer the listener’s call. Is there any way to identify, at young age, who is talented in science?

FRANCES ARNOLD: I think all children are talented. And if they love it, they will ask questions. They will do it. I think the most important thing is not to discourage someone.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet from Sidney who says, “Please ask what she knows about how instinct is encoded in DNA– example dog’s urge to bury things.”

FRANCES ARNOLD: I wish I knew. But it’s clear that many important behaviors are at least partially genetically encoded– loyalty in dogs. There’s so many interesting behaviors that can be bred. But we don’t really understand what the genetic details of that are. As we sequence more things and measure their properties, we’ll be using important and powerful tools like machine learning to piece out and to try to pull out what is the genetic basis.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you anticipated my last question. And that is, what tools would you like to see? I mean, I give you– well, you’ve got some money now from the Nobel Prize. What kind of tools would you– that don’t exist would you like to have?

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I want to be able to measure important properties rapidly so that I can do this breeding faster. I don’t have powerful enough tools to do that. But I’m also interested in, how do you use AI and machine learning to interpret the results of evolution to make it even faster than it is now?

IRA FLATOW: I noticed on your TED Talk you said that one of your great ambitions is to be invited to give the Ig Nobel award speech. You know, we broadcast the Igs every year the day after Thanksgiving. Now, we know Marc Abrahams pretty good, so I think we can put a– you know, might be able to put in a good word for you now.

FRANCES ARNOLD: Well, I was actually hoping to win the Ig Nobel Prize before. But that would be fun, too. Great. That would be marvelous.

IRA FLATOW: I think it might be a little easier for you now, too, to do that. All right. Thank you, Doctor, for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Dr. Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and she’s the professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering, and chemistry at Caltech.

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