Any short list of cutting-edge engineers will likely include Caltech’s Frances Arnold, a pioneer in protein engineering. In specific, she specializes in a method that mimics the process of natural selection to evolve proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal. Arnold’s engineering roots can be traced back to Pittsburgh where she grew up. Her father built one of the first commercial nuclear reactors.
With engineering in her blood, her academic career started in Princeton as one of the first women to study engineering at Princeton University. Arnold then earned a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving on to the Caltech, where she has devoted her work to biochemistry, biological engineering, and STEM for the past 28 years. It goes without saying that Frances Arnold, armed with high ambitions from the start, has paved the way for women in engineering, a field that, although changing, is still mostly dominated by men.
In the NPR piece “Is 'Leaning In' the Only Formula For Women's Success in Science?,” Arnold tells her female students to concentrate on becoming a problem-solver and moving forward rather than focus on the obstacles of being a minority in your field. Throughout her tenure at Caltech, she has faced many challenges but continues to forge ahead.
"I'm sure that there are people who are skeptical that a woman can do this job as well as a man. I am blissfully unaware of such people — and have been gifted with the ability to ignore them completely."
As a result of her ambition and ability to “lean in,” Arnold has earned rock-star status, especially among her female students. Some women at Caltech, however, still feel challenged by the current ratio of 70 men to 30 women students, the NPR article points out. “Leaning in” may take practice for some students, but at least they have Frances Arnold as a great example to follow. Read and listen to the full NPR article here.