Life in the Lab of a Laureate: What it Was Like Working with Frances Arnold

By Stephanie Blaszczyk
Science Communicator & Graduate Student (Tang Group)

Ph.D. chemists Katie Brenner, Andrew Buller, Jeffrey Endelman and Philip Romero celebrate their mentor’s success, after learning that Frances Arnold received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Ph.D. chemists Katie Brenner, Andrew Buller, Jeffrey Endelman and Philip Romero celebrate their mentor’s success, after learning that Frances Arnold received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

UW–Madison students are unknowingly influenced by recent 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner, Frances Arnold, thanks to four Ph.D. chemists and Arnold group alumni in the Madison area: Jeffrey Endelman (2005), Philip Romero (2012), and Andrew Buller (2017), all professors at UW–Madison, and Katie Brenner (2009) co-founder of bluDiagnostics, a biomedical company.

Though Frances Arnold has been a known commodity in academia for more than 20 years, her 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the directed evolution of enzymes made her a household name. Arnold is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

The local lab alumni largely echo the same sentiments when describing life in the lab of a (now) Nobel Laureate.

Like troops under the guidance of a general from afar, they worked diligently and independently as Arnold was largely absent from day-to-day interactions.

“Graduate school is very challenging,” Brenner said. “Frances expects her students to learn quickly to meet extremely high standards. Long-term, you see that her high expectations prepared you really well for your next steps: her training humbled you, and then built you back up. It was like science boot camp.”

Students relied on fellow lab mates to navigate this uncomfortable time, and they often bonded over these shared experiences. What many students failed to realize, however, was that Arnold was more observant than they thought. In one instance, Arnold called Brenner to her office sensing something was amiss. It was at this moment that Brenner saw a glimpse of Arnold’s kind, compassionate nature.

While difficult in the moment, Brenner is grateful for time and learning that occurred in Arnold’s lab. It taught her how to be a rigorous scientist, which has carried over to her career in R&D.

When asked what type of lab environment she tried to provide for her students, Arnold responded, “Honestly, the best lab environment is one where great lab members run the show and help each other do their best work.”

All four alumni undoubtedly performed great work in Arnold’s lab, as evidenced by their current success in academia and industry, and they credit Arnold for providing a research environment where intellectual curiosity could run rampant.

“Arnold had an ability to inspire people and recruit great scientists,” Endelman said. “She created an environment where you felt empowered to pursue interesting questions.”

She was a candid advisor who did not sugarcoat her opinions, but the students who graduated from her ranks have thrived, almost like a microscale survival of the fittest atmosphere, which is appropriate considering her career devotion to evolution.

When asked why Arnold’s research program thrived, Buller, in part, attributed it to Arnold being “ utterly tenacious and [wanting] that from her students”. Romero, on the other hand, attributed her success to being “laser focused”. Arnold realized early on that directed evolution was a superior way to engineer proteins and stuck with this approach.

The alumni also portrayed her as unhampered by setbacks, focused but amenable to intellectual curiosity, and a master communicator of science. She expected research excellence and that her students worked as tirelessly as she did, even in the midst of setbacks.

These traits manifested in the alumni, and they attribute their time in the Arnold lab for teaching them to do “good science,” to make their scientific presentations aesthetically appealing, and to tell the most effective story. As the alumni transitioned to their own independent careers, they continue to transmit the lessons learned in the lab of a laureate to their students and mentees throughout campus and the Madison area.

Buller once asked Arnold how she viewed academic competition, he remembers her saying, “I don’t worry about competition. I just do it better.” With her extensive list of accolades, now including a Nobel Prize, Arnold is clearly doing many things exceptionally well.