Friday’s return to Berkeley will be special for Nobel winner Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, returns to Berkeley for a special day Friday. (Caltech photo)

Frances Arnold admits it will be an emotional moment Friday when, as winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she’ll be the featured attraction at UC Berkeley for a Dean’s Dinner and reception.

She’s ready, though. The Berkeley Ph.D. recipient, who now teaches at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has had a bit of practice at emotional moments.

There was the time in 2017 when Caltech named her its Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry.

Then, last year, she became the fifth woman in 117 years to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on directed evolution.

Next comes Friday’s Dean’s Dinner, an annual event thanking the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry’s donors for their support, after the unveiling of a ceremonial plaque to celebrate her Nobel win.

“I was floored when they gave me the Linus Pauling chair,” Arnold says of the Caltech professorship named after perhaps the most famous chemist and biochemist, himself a Nobel Prize winner. “I felt small. Those are a big pair of shoes to fill.

“And then when I got the Nobel, my feet grew a bit.”

Relatively speaking, the plaque unveiling at Berkeley in Latimer Hall’s lobby from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by the private dinner and reception, will be a bit more low key.

Even so, getting a curtain call from the university where she got both her master’s degree and her Ph.D. “is a little humbling,” she says.

“To come back to Berkeley is special. I love Berkeley,” Arnold says. “I don’t get to go up often enough, in my opinion. It’ll be fun.”

Balance that with the Nobel ceremony where she was told the Nobel Committee would keep her dancing like a hen on a hot griddle. It was all of that and lots of fun — but also intense.

“I had 60 friends and family in Stockholm for the Nobel,” Arnold says. “Between the events and the interviews and the speeches, there were some of them that I never got to see. It was like my feet never touched the ground.

“And they didn’t touch ground until I came home to a big pile of laundry.”

Her time was so scripted during her Stockholm stay that she had to appoint one of her friends as, essentially, wardrobe director.

Frances Arnold in lab wearing googles and holding beaker

Frances Arnold has found her time to be stretched a little thin since her Nobel Prize win. (Caltech photo)

“I had friends who took over various jobs that week,” she says. “One of them was just in charge of dressing me. You really needed to have the right dress at the right time.”

And, she needed time to do things of special importance to her, like meeting Donna Strickland.

Strickland was the only other woman receiving a 2018 Nobel science prize. A Canadian optical physicist and pulsed laser pioneer, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Gérard Mourou for the invention of chirped pulse amplification, the current state-of-the-art technique used by the world’s highest-powered lasers.

“We were the only two women awarded Nobels, and she was the first in 55 years in physics and only the third woman to win a physics Nobel. And I get there, and it turns out she’s a friend of my brother’s. I have a photo around somewhere of my brother (Eddy) standing with two Nobel laureates.”

Things have slowed down a bit for Arnold since bringing back her Nobel in October. But only a bit.

“Life is different and really, really busy,” Arnold says. “I still have a full-time job teaching and mentoring and raising money. And the Nobel comes on top of that. Now, I’m buried under a mountain of invitations. It’s a First World problem, I know, and I’m still learning how to navigate this.”

Getting the chance to come back to Berkeley, though, is no problem.

“I feel very, very close to Berkeley, very proud of Berkeley,” Arnold says. “I had a chance to go there at a super-important time in my career. It was a course correction.”

She’d come to Berkeley from Princeton University in 1980 to do work with Harvey Blanch, now a professor emeritus, but then Arnold’s Ph.D. advisor and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Her idea was to work in biofuels. But the price of oil dropped dramatically at about that time, biofuels were less the rage, and a change seemed to be in order.

“Harvey said he had these new projects in biomolecular engineering, and I pivoted,” Arnold says. “It wasn’t until Caltech that I started directed evolution, but it was at Berkeley that I learned the basics of how to do science at the highest level. And I learned independence.”

She turned that independence and her knowledge of science essentials into groundbreaking work at the lab she went on set up at Caltech to work on the directed evolution of enzymes. It would soon prove to have broad impact on the pharmaceutical industry.

According to Blanch, directed evolution is based on the premise that the approach taken by nature to optimize biological function — basically Darwin’s process of natural selection — can be used in the lab to provide remarkable results. The number of industrial enzymes to come out of directed evolution continues to soar.

Ever since the Nobel Prize came her way, Arnold can scarcely call her time her own.

That’s why she took time off a few weeks ago and headed to her cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s a 1.5-mile walk from the nearest road.

“There was no phone. There was no internet. There was no electricity or running water,” Arnold says. “There was just a fire in the fireplace. It was great. I took a picture and put it on Twitter.”