Why Frances Arnold’s Nobel Prize is a significant achievement for engineering

Frances Arnold

Nobel Prize Laureate and engineer Frances Arnold

December 10, 2018

Today, engineer Frances H. Arnold joins other Laureates at a ceremony in Stockholm to accept a 2018 Nobel Prize. Dr. Arnold is being recognized for developing a pioneering method for engineering biology that helps solve human problems. George P. Smith and Gregory P. Winter share the award for a similar method.

As head of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, I want to take a moment to reflect on her achievements and what this recognition means to me and my fellow engineers.

Throughout her career, Dr. Arnold has woven together knowledge from engineering, biology, chemistry, computer science and other fields, creating a revolutionary tool that today is widely used across science and engineering research and innovation landscapes.

Through basic research begun more than three decades ago, Dr. Arnold proposed and refined a technique, known as directed evolution, to create entirely new enzymes, proteins that enable chemical reactions. Dr. Arnold and others are using directed evolution to create new cancer treatments, plant-based fuels, greener industrial chemicals, and many other products.

This groundbreaking work demonstrates the importance of engineering approaches to understanding and exploiting fundamental processes found in all living things for the benefit of humankind.

It also shows the value of fresh perspectives. Directed evolution makes randomly mutated enzymes and screens them for desired traits. The new enzymes might catalyze chemical reactions more quickly or with greater selectivity than was previously possible. Dr. Arnold has also shown that they might catalyze reactions never before observed in nature. As she noted in a 2017 journal article, “Instead of simply asking what enzymes do in nature, we can now ask the question, ‘What can they do?’”

Dr. Arnold’s work focuses on discoveries that benefit people, and exemplifies the value of an imaginative engineering approach to research. NSF is thrilled to have funded Arnold’s pioneering research from the beginning.

The Nobel Committee’s recognition of her impact on science and society serves as an inspiration not only to me, but to future engineers. According to NSF data, the percentage of women in the engineering workforce today is only about 15 percent. Role models like Dr. Arnold are critical to a thriving research enterprise, as we strive to make research more inclusive of voices not traditionally heard.

-NSF Engineering Assistant Director Dawn Tilbury


Media Contact
Sarah Bates, NSF, (703) 292-7738, sabates@nsf.gov 

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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