UC Berkeley alumna 1 of 5 women in history to receive Nobel Prize in chemistry

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UC Berkeley alumna and professor at the California Institute of Technology Frances Arnold was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday — the fifth woman in history to win this prize.

According to the Nobel press release, Arnold’s work on the evolution of enzymes has led to more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances. Hundreds of labs have used the methods she worked on to do “a whole slew” of amazing things, Arnold said, such as creating chemicals from renewable resources or catalysts to replace toxic metals. Her work has most significantly impacted the pharmaceutical industry, according to a Berkeley News press release.

“She pioneered what is known as directed evolution of proteins, whereby the power of natural selection is combined with the efficiency of modern biochemical methods,” said Dean of the College of Chemistry Douglas Clark in an email. “It is an exceedingly clever and elegant concept, and a shining example of how exciting innovations can emerge from research at the intersection of different fields.”

Arnold received her doctorate in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley in 1985. She initially wanted to enter research involving sustainable production of chemical and fuels, said campus Professor Emeritus Harvey Blanch, who was Arnold’s Ph.D. adviser. After a drop in oil prices that led to less funding for biofuel research, however, Arnold switched to evolution to redesign enzymes for use in biotechnology, according to a Berkeley News press release.

Professor Jeffrey Reimer first met Arnold when he was a new professor, and her Ph.D. qualifying exam was his first duty.

“She was confident, outgoing, … the kind of person that kind of owns the room when you walk into it,” Reimer said.

Arnold received the call informing her that she had won a Nobel Prize at 4 a.m. while in Dallas and remained composed, but she said she was really “bouncing off the walls.”   

Arnold said the many opportunities that allowed her to work with the “most brilliant minds of the word” helped her along the way.

“The role of these research institutions, such as (UC) Berkeley, should not be underestimated. The solutions to many of the issues we face in the world today come from them,” Arnold said.  

Arnold said she is thrilled and honored to be the fifth woman to receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry, which she said proves that women’s work is being recognized, even at the highest level.

“I was one of the very few women professors at Caltech, so it’s wonderful to see that as more women enter the field … they are being recognized. Women’s work is being recognized at the highest level,” Arnold said.

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.