Radio review: Scientific spirit of adventure shines through

Nuala McCann
Nuala McCann

The Life Scientific Radio 4

Frances Arnold isn’t your idea of a Nobel prize winner for chemistry.

For a start, she left home at 15 because she didn’t want to follow the rules.

“We didn’t trust our parents… they lied to us about Vietnam. Following the rules at home was not in my deck of cards.”

Once in a while, she went to school … when she felt like it.

Arnold ended up driving a big yellow taxi in Pittsburgh to pay the rent.

She had worked in a pizza parlour at less than a dollar an hour and needed a bit more. Hence the taxi.

But her father was a respected nuclear physicist and she did end up going to Princeton.

She applied to mechanical engineering in 1973.

This is a woman who does self deprecation big time - there were “zero women expressing an interest” she said, “Someone took a risk on me”.

It turns out that she didn’t particularly like chemistry … “Who likes freshman chemistry?” but she ended up winning a Nobel Prize in it.

Arnold’s dynamism, interest, spirit of adventure combined with a large lick of pragmatism shines through.

She invented a radical new approach to engineering enzymes.

Rather than try to design industrial enzymes from scratch – which she considered to be an impossible task – she let nature do the work.

“I breed enzymes like you breed cats and dogs.”

It is, she said, akin to how we engineer everything from corn to carrier pigeons; lab rats to race horses.

Industry jumped on her ideas.

I’d always stayed away from The Life Scientific – haunted perhaps by the nasty pong of the old school chemistry lab.

But this is science for all and Professor Jim Al-Khalili is a great communicator.

He’s relaxed, easy and draws people out.

In 2004, when Arnold’s work life was going wonderfully, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had three little boys.

Then in 2010, Andrew Lang, her partner of 20 years, took his own life.

“It’s unspeakable the devastation and pain that suicide causes,” she said.

But she had three teenage sons.

“How does anyone on whom others depend cope? You cope by doing.”

Now Frances Arnold advises the White House on science and technology: “Research is easy … people are really, really hard.”

Getting on is what she does. Put The Life Scientific on your listening list.