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Frances Arnold: Career path of a Caltech scientist

The chemical engineer and biochemist focuses on creating new proteins for use in renewable energy. Following her instincts, she has often bucked tradition, including conducting thousands of 'cheap and fast' research experiments.

July 03, 2011|By Walter Hamilton, Los Angeles Times
  • "Most innovative things are not obvious to other people at the time. You have to believe in yourself. If youve got a good idea follow it even though others tell you its not, says chemical engineer and biochemist Frances Arnold, seen here in the Spaulding Laboratory on the Pasadena campus of Caltech.
"Most innovative things are not obvious to other people at the time.… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Chemical engineer and biochemist at Caltech in Pasadena. Frances Arnold, 54, specializes in the creation of new proteins, with a focus on renewable energy. She is co-founder of Gevo Inc., a company that develops liquid fuel from plants that can be used as a substitute for gasoline and jet fuel.

Early challenge: She arrived at Caltech in 1986 at age 29, focusing her research on developing proteins with potential for use in areas such as medicine and energy. But she struggled early on. "I was completely ignorant of how difficult it was," she said. "It was terrifying."

So Arnold redoubled her efforts, conducting thousands of experiments "cheap and fast." "I said 'OK, if one experiment doesn't work I'm going to do a million experiments, and I don't care if 999,999 don't work. I'm going to find the one that does.'" Some colleagues viewed Arnold's approach as crude. Academic research traditionally involved far fewer experiments but weeks or months spent meticulously crafting methodology and analyzing possible outcomes, she said. But her efforts eventually yielded results. For example, she developed proteins that didn't break down at high temperatures. That had practical applications in a variety of uses including laundry detergents and the development of new drugs.

Hear me roar: Arnold believes she generally has benefited from being a woman in a field dominated by men, in part because universities were eager to hire female scientists. Still, men have treated her dismissively at times, she said. "I've been called pushy and aggressive and all the negative words that are rarely applied to men with the same traits. But it doesn't bother me."

Not your typical geek: Growing up in a Roman Catholic military family in Pittsburgh, Arnold didn't fit the mold of a geeky scientist. She protested the Vietnam War and had "quite wild high school years" but wouldn't divulge details. "If I ever want a Senate confirmation, I can't comment," she said. She rebelled against her strict upbringing by moving into her own apartment during high school, paying the rent by working as a cocktail waitress at Walt Harper's Attic, a local jazz club. The 17-year-old told the owner she was 22. "Of course they never checked IDs back then," she said. She supplemented her income by driving a cab. Arnold said she was a lackluster student. Still she got into Princeton, earning a mechanical engineering degree in 1979. She earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1985.

Renewable energy: Arnold began focusing on renewable energy in 1999, attracted by the scientific challenge and the environmental necessity. "I thought to myself: What are the most important problems that society faces that I could contribute to? And it was clear that finding new sustainable sources of energy was the most important," she said. She oversees 20 students and post-doctoral researchers in her Caltech lab who engineer enzymes for a wide range of uses in alternative energy. They're also working to develop next-generation methods and technology for biological engineering.

Personal: Arnold, a La Cañada Flintridge resident, is single with three sons. A breast cancer survivor, she was diagnosed six years ago and underwent treatment for 18 months. Among her hobbies are traveling, scuba diving, skiing, dirt-bike riding and hiking.

Life lessons: "I meet so many young people who want to plan out their lives and want a recipe," she said. "They want me to tell them how to succeed. I didn't follow a recipe. I followed my instincts. I was lucky to be passionate about a field that was full of opportunity." She said it also takes a willingness to go against the flow. "Most innovative things are not obvious to other people at the time," Arnold said. "You have to believe in yourself. If you've got a good idea, follow it even though others tell you it's not."

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

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