Dr. Frances Arnold won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2018 — ​and that's not even the most impressive thing about her
Courtesy of Caltech
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When Dr. Frances Arnold received a call from the Nobel committee telling her she'd been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, she was "stunned."

When you hear about her life up to that moment, you won't be.

Arnold was never one to be told what she could or couldn't do. At 15, she moved out of her parents' house in Pittsburgh as an act of rebellion, and supported herself by working in pizza parlors, as a waitress in jazz clubs, and as a taxi driver. She went to high school — occasionally — and managed to graduate, despite collecting a stack of truancy letters along the way.

She never stopped learning, though, even when she skipped class. She was always teaching herself things, from foreign languages to music to math.

"My power is collecting knowledge," she said in a podcast. "Somehow I knew early on that knowledge was like money in the bank. That if you could collect experiences, if you could teach yourself calculus, if you could read a history book — all of which I loved to do — if you could teach yourself music, then somehow it would add up."

And add up it did. Despite her shaky high school attendance, Arnold was admitted to Princeton — in part, she says, because she was the only female applicant to the mechanical engineering program, and in part because her dad was a nuclear physicist Princeton alum who may have pulled a few strings. (Despite her rebellion in high school and some clashes of opinion, Arnold had a close relationship with her father. "We fought all the time," she told the New York Times. "But he understood me.")


At university, she channeled the rebellious passions of her youth into a desire to contribute to the betterment of the world. "When you're very young, you can question," she says, "but you don't know how to solve the problem. At Princeton I was given some tools that I could use to actually attack a problem, and maybe even offer a solution."

After graduating in 1979, she set out to help President Carter meet his administration's renewable energy goals, an ambition that took her around the world, from South Korea to Brazil, working on solar energy. In 1985, she earned her PhD in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley, then joined Caltech, where she has worked as a researcher and professor for most of her career.

In 1989, Arnold was awarded the prestigious Packard Fellowship, which provides funding for promising, early-career scientists and engineers. She currently serves as chair of the fellowship's advisory board and spends much of her time running her lab at Caltech.

Arnold's primary scientific achievement is having pioneered a process for engineering proteins known as directed evolution. As a self-proclaimed "engineer of the biological world," Arnold figured out how to harness the power of evolution in the lab, to push that natural design process to places it wouldn't normally go, and essentially make biology do complex chemistry for us.

"Our whole chemicals industry, our whole lifestyle, is predicated on the need to take abundant starting materials and turn them into clothing, housing, food, and medicines for seven billion people," she says. "Basically everything that supports our lives is done through chemistry. And we do a terrible job at it. Human beings do chemistry very inefficiently; we've managed to pollute the planet at the same time that we provide these products for us."

She believed that we could look to the biological world for examples of how to take cheap, abundant, renewable starting materials, such as sunlight and carbon dioxide, and turn them into the products we use in our daily lives.

"Nature does it with protein catalysts called enzymes that convert one form of matter into another, and into all of life," she says. "Hers are the most beautiful, intricate, efficient, selective, non-polluting machines that you can imagine. Why not learn from the best?"

As Arnold says, "Nature can do chemistry we never dreamed was possible." Rather than figure out all of the intricate details of how those complicated processes work and try to recreate them, the scientists in her lab simply direct those natural processes to do chemistry more efficiently.

The possibilities that Arnold's work has opened up are practically limitless, but she remains laser-focused on sustainable development. "All my projects are about sustainability, bioremediation, and making things in a cleaner fashion," she told the Times. "Students come and say, I want to help people. I say, people get plenty of help. Why don't you help the planet?"

For example, one of the innovations she is spearheading with two former students who started a company called Provivi is to make non-toxic insect mating pheromones cheaply to use for crop protection. Pheromones can be released over crops to create sexual confusion in agricultural pests so they won't mate, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides.

So here we see an ambitious woman who is not only solving global problems, but doing so in a highly male-dominated field. She has won multiple coveted awards, including a Nobel prize. She speaks several languages, plays three musical instruments, and has personally been invited to meet the Queen of England and other heads of state.

It would be easy to think Arnold was just blessed with a charmed life, but that's not so. While building a successful career, she's also had to overcome a series of tragedies that would flatten many of us.

After her first marriage ended in divorce, her ex-husband died of colon cancer and she was left raising their young son on her own. Three years later, in 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It spread to her lymph nodes and she went through 18 months of surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy, treatment that she said ruined her previously photographic memory.

In 2010, she lost her second husband, cosmologist Andrew Lange, to suicide. And in 2016, the middle of her three sons, William, died in an accident, which she still can't bring herself to speak about.

Arnold's life has been marked by crisis and victory, tragedy and triumph — and she has some words for those who express awe at her resilience.

"Nobody is guaranteed an easy life," she told the Times. "Look at the people in Syria. I have friends who are Holocaust survivors. What was I supposed to do? Give up, say I can't go on? No. I had three children. I had a group of young people in the lab. Why would I give up?

"You can't avoid challenges," she says. "You can only overcome them. You don't have control. Loved ones will die. You will not get the job that you really want. You will be laid off. Someone's going to criticize you. It's going to happen. How you respond to it dictates whether you will be happy or not."

Arnold is a unique woman by any measure. And part of what makes her a unique figure in science is her diverse skill set and knowledge beyond the lab. She approaches chemistry and biology not only as an engineer, but also as an artist and musician. Perhaps that's what has enabled her to think outside of the traditional scientific box and ignore the naysayers she's encountered throughout her career.

"You look at the code of life," she says. "To me, that's like a Beethoven symphony. It's something I could not compose. It's something intricate. It's stunningly beautiful. I can't compose it, but there's this machine, this evolutionary algorithm, and you just turn the crank, make random changes and select for function, and out comes all this wonderful diversity. Out comes all the life that you see around you. That has come out of this machine of natural evolution. I want to make a machine like that for artificial evolution. That's what we've been able to do, so now I can decide what I want my symphony to do. How does it make you feel? How does it give you something that you did not have before? I can turn the crank of evolution and create my own symphony."

Ultimately, she says, "I'm a builder…I love to build things. And if it's molecules, that's called chemistry. I love to create something that never existed before and that can also serve a purpose. I'm not a composer. I love music, but I can't compose. I'm not a poet. I love poetry — I'm not good at composing words. But I can compose molecules."

Her primary goal is to compose a molecular symphony that will create a cleaner planet for us all. "I want to take biology where it would never have gone, because I want to put it in service of helping humans live on this planet without destroying everything else."

Sounds like an excellent plan, Dr. Arnold.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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