Nobel Prize laureate visited DTU Biosustain

Thursday 23 May 19

Biology can solve the world’s most pressing problems, but political will is needed to change status quo. That was one of Nobel Prize laureate Frances Arnold’s key messages during an interview at DTU Biosustain.

As a high schooler, Frances Arnold hitchhiked to Washington D.C. to protest against the Vietnam War and lived on her own working as a cocktail waitress at a local jazz club and as a cab driver.

"We were told not to trust anyone over 25 and we realised that the older generations didn’t have the solutions to solve the problems that my generation would face"
Nobel Prize Laureate and Professor at California Institute of Technology, Frances Arnold

She lived her teenage years in a time of social unrest and change. Cities were burning, students were protesting in the streets and the oil crisis resulted in skyrocketing inflation that impacted people’s lives, including Arnold’s.

It was the zeitgeist of the 1970s that shaped Frances Arnold as a scientist and lay the foundation for the science that she received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for in 2018.

“We were told not to trust anyone over 25 and we realised that the older generations didn’t have the solutions to solve the problems that my generation would face. The same is true today, but I would like to see a little bit more rebelliousness in the young generation because the world is going to belong to them and hopefully, they will be able to do it better than we were. I was used to seeing things in a different way and that also made its way into my science,” says Nobel Prize Laureate, Frances Arnold.

However, it was not always the plan for her to become a scientist. Actually, Arnold thought about working as a diplomat or a CEO in a company, and in her early years at Princeton University, she took additional courses in Italian, Russian and Economics. But already in her early 20’s, she realised that she was not good enough at making compromises to work in the political world. Instead, she started her first job at the Solar Energy Research Institute.

“I found out that my skills in science could be used to deal with some of the big problems of society. In the US, we had a national goal of 20% renewable energy in 2000. That was something I could devote my skills to working on. Ever since then I have tried to use my technical skills to work on things that have relevance,” she says.

Biology can fix the problems

Arnold has pioneered the use of directed evolution to design enzymes - molecules that catalyse, or speed up, chemical reactions that perform novel functions and work more effectively or/and efficiently than natural enzymes.

These highly specific and efficient enzymes can be used as environmentally-friendly alternatives to some industrial chemical synthesis procedures.

According to the Nobel Prize laureate, one has to look to biology when solving the world’s most pressing problems related to climate change.

“Biology is the best chemist and the best engineer on the planet. So, if we want to survive on this planet with 10 billion people and have the life that we have grown accustomed to, we need different ways of producing things than just pumping oil out of the ground. I believe that biology can teach us how to be sustainable and going forward, microbial factories will be the way we use renewable resources to make products,” says Frances Arnold.

She further points out that the cheap oil price is the main obstacle to why biology has not prevailed in the way it aspires to yet.

“Nobody wants to pay more for gasoline, they just want to burn it up and contribute to climate change. If oil is cheap, the alternatives will not be able to convene. But that will change. I watched this several times and it will change,” she says.

Ignore the nay-sayers

When receiving the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Arnold became a member of a club with only five women recipients. While she does not recommend young female scientists to see a Nobel Prize as a goal in itself, she is fairly confident that many more women will join the exclusive club in the future.

“I started doing science when there were so few women at the junior scientist level and even fewer at senior scientist level. Now there are many women competing at all levels, so the stream is there, and they are doing great work. There are many women you can already list as Nobel-worthy,” she emphasises.

While the future prospects are good, the honoured scientist is not afraid of giving good advice and be a role model for female scientists.

“Do something different. Don’t sit around worrying about it. Just do it. The opportunities are great. Most people are too reluctant and afraid of coming out of the bush. Men and women. Most people are afraid of sticking their necks out and try something risky. But if you want to really succeed and do something different, it is by definition risky,” says Frances Arnold.

Arnold did indeed do something completely different, and actually, it all started by skipping school and hitchhiking to D.C. to raise her voice.

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