PASADENA—Frances H. Arnold, professor of chemical engineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, was one of 78 engineers elected this year to membership in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
Arnold was elected for integrating fundamentals in molecular biology, genetics, and bioengineering to the benefit of life science and industry. Her research has revolutionized protein engineering and its applications to biotechnology, addressing central issues in protein design and the evolution of new biocatalysts.
Arnold is one of the pioneers in the use of "directed evolution" to improve proteins and other biological molecules for commercial applications. Directed evolution applies the principles of breeding, but to molecules rather than animals or plants. Even a single protein is enormously complex—"We don't know enough to design them from first principles," Arnold explains. "But evolution and breeding can yield beneficial changes rapidly."
Using these methods, Arnold has been able to generate proteins with a variety of useful features, like improved stability and the ability to function in nonnatural environments.
The practical applications of this research will be many. "They range from making better laundry detergent enzymes to developing possible new treatments for diabetes and aging," Arnold foresees. "One favorite 'vision' is a chemicals industry that is based entirely on biological processes: clean, safe, and economical. To do this we will have to 'evolve' nature's fabulous enzymes into highly practical catalysts."
NAE membership honors those who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice, and those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishments in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology. Election into the NAE is one the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive.
Founded in 1964, the NAE is an independent, nonprofit institution that advises the federal government on issues of science and technology policy, and conducts studies to articulate the societal implications of rapid technological change. The NAE also initiates programs designed to encourage international cooperation between engineering societies, improve the public's technological awareness and understanding, and enhance the dialogue between scientists, engineers, and policymakers.
Of the 2,027 members of the NAE, Arnold is one of 51 women. She also holds the distinction of being the only member who is the daughter of an existing member. Arnold's father, William H. Arnold, was made a member of the NAE in 1974 for his contributions to the systems engineering of light-water nuclear power plants and to the design of commercial pressurized water reactors for nuclear systems.