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In the Lead: Nobel Laureates Drs. Frances Arnold & Donna Strickland

Dr. Frances Arnold (left) and Dr. Donna Strickland (right) speaking at the 2019 IWF World Leadership Conference in Toronto

While in Toronto for the 2019 IWF World Leadership Conference, we inducted two outstanding women into our Hall of Fame: Drs. Frances Arnold and Donna Strickland. Two leading scientists, two Nobel Prize Laureates and two role models for women and girls in science.

Dr. Frances Arnold, a member of IWF Southern California, is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018, only the fifth woman to do so, for her method of creating better enzymes in the laboratory using the principles of evolution. Dr. Donna Strickland, an honorary IWF member, is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo. She received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing chirped pulse amplification with Dr. Gérard Mourou.

For this edition of In the Lead, we wanted to hear more from these accomplished experts. We asked each woman about life after winning the Nobel, new thoughts on their respective innovations, and how we can encourage more young people to take up science.

Since you both received the Nobel Prize, what has changed in your life?

DR. ARNOLD: My children now do their own dishes! Joking aside, the Nobel Prize is a catapult to an even higher level of busy-ness. In addition to doing my previous jobs (overseeing a large research group, teaching, advising start-up companies), I spent this past year sharing our science and how the living world evolves new solutions to (chemical) problems with audiences all over the world. I explain how we can use nature’s innovation machine of evolution to solve problems for us. I’ve also encouraged many young women to stay in science and make the most of their opportunities.

DR. STRICKLAND: My life is quite different. I led a fairly quiet life before this. I had a small research group and attended one or two conferences a year. Now I am on the road three weeks a month on average to give my talk, which is on the topic of my Nobel Prize-winning research. When I go to a conference, I also usually do media interviews, as well, which I didn’t do before. People ask me for selfies. I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people like the Pope and Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon.

Dr. Arnold, what do you think is the most surprising application of directed evolution of enzymes and why?

DR. ARNOLD: The applications today range from making better laundry detergents to curing disease. I’m not surprised by the innovative power of evolution, nor by the creativity of human beings. I really love to see the new chemistry that biological systems can do, if you just ask them. Clean, efficient and sustainable. Move over, human chemists: Biology is coming!

And Dr. Strickland, where do you see chirped pulse amplification being applied in the next 10 years?

DR. STRICKLAND: CPA lasers can slice transparent materials cleanly and precisely, so surgeons use them to slice the eye’s corneal flap before using a different laser to correct vision. This uses relatively low-energy CPA systems. I think we will see larger CPA lasers being used for laser acceleration of charged particles. The goal of the work is to generate higher energy protons that hospitals can’t currently achieve. These higher energies could help surgeons reach and remove deep-tissue tumors, including brain tumors that are currently inoperable. There are, however, still many scientific and technical challenges to overcome before laser acceleration is a viable alternative to the current technology.

Dr. Arnold, you advise screenwriters on how to portray science accurately. What is the most difficult aspect of providing this counsel?

Scientists are storytellers, too. But scientists are much more constrained to the probable, while screenwriters are more interested in the possible. It’s a lot of fun to let your mind go and think about the possible; the challenge is to rein in the ridiculous.

Dr. Strickland, how do you feel about how science and scientists are displayed in film and media?

I would like to see scientists portrayed much the same way medical doctors are portrayed: as people who have interesting jobs and lives outside of work. I think most scientists are normal people, but they often seem the opposite on screen and in works of fiction. When the movie is about a real scientist such as Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, the movie depicts the scientist in a very compelling way, but when the characters are invented, the scientists often end up seeming one-dimensional and awkward.

What do you think is the single most important thing to ensuring girls become scientists?

DR. ARNOLD: Girls need to see more of us succeeding at, and enjoying, careers in science. I encourage them to focus not on struggles and self-doubts, and instead focus on moving forward and doing their thing!

DR. STRICKLAND: I believe the biggest influence for children is their parents. I think it is up to parents to foster the natural curiosity in their children and encourage learning in all disciplines to allow the children to find out what subjects really excite them. Then they should nurture the child’s natural enthusiasm for that subject.

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In the Lead: Nobel Laureates Drs. Frances Arnold & Donna Strickland
In the Lead: Nobel Laureates Drs. Frances Arnold & Donna Strickland
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