Nobel winner overcame personal loss, cancer, and being a woman

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Life has not always been easy for Frances Arnold, the California University of Technology chemical engineering professor who shared in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry Wednesday. And it’s not all about being a woman in a man’s world.

Arnold’s win came as no surprise to anyone who knows her and her work. She is a heavy-hitter by any measure, well recognized for inventing a way to tweak evolution to manipulate enzymes.

But Arnold has also been forced to navigate a personal landscape of extreme adversity while forging her stellar career. Her first husband, biochemical engineer James Bailey, died of cancer in 2001.

Her former partner, Andrew Lange, was a prominent cosmologist who died by suicide in 2010.

Arnold was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. And in 2016 her son William Lange-Arnold died in an accident.

“So many things in my life have gone awry,” Arnold said in a speech she gave in 2017 at Caltech.

“Nine months ago my beloved son, William, died accidentally. He would have finished his junior year in college this week. His brothers and I experience a profound, ongoing loss, and every day I think of the wonderful man he was, and would have been.”

U.S. biochemical engineer Frances Arnold poses after receiving the Millennium Technology Prize 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.Heilli Saukkomaa / AFP – Getty Images file

Yet Arnold managed and thrived as a single mom and a woman in a world heavily dominated by men. On Wednesday, she became only the fifth woman to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and one of only 17 women to win one of the science-based Nobel Prizes, which include Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry and Physics. Since their start in 1901, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 844 men and 49 women.

She predicted more women will eventually be recognized.

“There are lot of brilliant women in chemistry, a little later than some of the men, but they are amazing,” Arnold told a news conference at Caltech Wednesday afternoon.

“We are going to see a steady stream, I predict, of Nobel prizes coming out of chemistry and given to women.”

One of the other winners, Donna Strickland, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. Her life story couldn’t be more different from Arnold’s.

Strickland, a physicist who specializes in laser technology at Canada’s University of Waterloo, keeps a low profile, is still an associate professor late in her career and didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until the prize was announced Tuesday.

Both women, however, are rare examples of recognition in two fields utterly dominated by men.

Strickland was shocked to learn that she was only the third woman to ever have received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The other two are Marie Curie, who won it in 1903, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won in 1963 —55 years ago.

“Is that all, really? I thought there might have been more,” Strickland said at a news conference Tuesday.

Strickland’s work has led to the development of the pulsed lasers that are used, among other things, for the laser surgery that has restored clear vision to millions of people.

Physicist Donna Strickland Wins 2018 Nobel Prize With Two Other Scientists
Professor Donna Strickland shows off instruments in her lab following a news conference at the University of Waterloo to field questions about her shared Nobel Prize in Physics, Oct. 2, 2018 in Waterloo, Canada.Cole Burston / Getty Images

Arnold’s work has spawned multiple patents and companies. She has won numerous prizes, helped found biofuel company Gevo and sits on the corporate board of gene sequencing company Illumina Inc.

“If they had a special Nobel laureate for Nobel laureates, she’d be that person,” said Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemistry professor at Stanford University who calls Arnold both a friend and a colleague.

“Frances is an extremely strong, impressive singularity of a person.”