Investiture Address: Frances Arnold

The Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry, and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology

June 10, 2017

Engineering in a Changing World

Good morning, and many congratulations to all of you, and to the families who have supported you on your journeys.  And welcome to the wonderful world of not just studying engineering, but of BEING an engineer.  You are very lucky indeed, because you can help mold, even build your world.

If you want a world where technology helps us live sustainably, where we don’t continue to deplete our finite resources and degrade the environment, a world where you and your children will enjoy a standard of living that comes close to the one that my generation has been lucky enough to enjoy, then you must work with great engineers.

Early in my career I found such an engineer. I have worked with, and drawn inspiration from, the greatest engineer of all time: Nature.  Nature has discovered amazing solutions to an incredible array of difficult problems, not the least of which is the problem of being alive! Nature figured out how to extract materials and energy from widely different sources and convert them to a vast collection of brilliant self-repairing, adaptive materials, molecular machines, control systems, and chemical factories.  With great efficiency and often minimal waste. We should strive to match this elegance and efficiency in any of our human-engineered systems.

Inspired by Nature, I became an engineer of the biological world, with the goal of rewriting DNA to solve human problems. I had no clue how hard that would be!  Here I was, an engineer at the beginning of the DNA revolution, when we were just beginning to cut and paste DNA with our baby scissors. Remember, this was just a couple of decades after DNA’s elegant helical structure was unveiled to us for the very first time.  I wanted to engineer the molecules of life, to make things that would serve us in our bid to provide food, chemicals, materials, medicine to a growing population.

No, I had no idea how hard it would be to compose new DNA.  Even though there’s just four letters in its alphabet, the code of life is rich, like a Beethoven symphony. Intricate and stunningly beautiful. As much as we might love to sit down at our computers and write like that, we can’t.  We don’t yet know how.  We don’t understand how DNA encodes life; we don’t even know what many of the genes of the simplest organisms are doing.

But since when would that stop a good engineer?  We engineers build using what we have and know at the time. Ignorance of underlying physics or chemistry can be circumvented with creativity and experimentation. In fact, that is exactly how nature does it—nature figured out how to build new catalysts, new materials, new organisms using a process that’s both elegant and simple: evolution. A few billion years of Darwinian exploration, innovation, trial and error, success and failure have generated a truly stunning array of solutions to the problem of life. The ultimate internet of living things, nature has been crowd-sourcing problem solving for 3.5 billion years.

And just like we human engineers do, evolution builds things from what is there, from parts picked up off the biological factory floor and scavenged from Nature’s vast repository of previous inventions. I see every day that the ability of biological systems to adapt to a competitive and rapidly changing world rests squarely on and arises from that vast instruction list that is genetic diversity. A few modifications to their working parts, and ‘poof’ the microbes have devised a work-around for that pesky antibiotic that it took us ten years and a billion dollars and to develop.   A few mutations and a microbe learns how to eat synthetic herbicides, oil spills, or even plastics that were once thought to be non-biodegradable.

We, and especially our leaders, have a lot to learn from how nature innovates.  Innovation comes straight out of diversity—of recombining different parts and recombining different experiences.  Without that diversity, we all move down the same path, and we accumulate a lot of wrong ideas.  Nature teaches us that’s a sure route to extinction.

Yes, you have a remarkable ability to control the future, by contributing to building it.  When you see a problem, you can strive to solve it, starting with the skills you learned here. But you also have little control over many things that matter so much to us: illness and loss of loved ones, strife in the Middle East and in our own cities, the political climate.

The world is always changing, and some of those changes will be frightening and not always to your benefit.  To survive and even thrive in a changing world, nature offers another great lesson: the survivors are those who at the least adapt to change, or even better learn to benefit from change and grow intellectually and personally.  That means careful listening and constant learning. That means reevaluating your choices throughout your lives and being willing to make adjustments.  Adaptation does not mean acceptance, and it certainly does not mean giving up—it means taking on some of the toughest challenges as new opportunities to grow and learn.

When I was asked to speak to you on this day when you and your families will celebrate your hard work and your achievements, my first thought was to say no.  I felt, I don’t have any advice to offer, or even words of wisdom. So many things in my life have gone awry. 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.

But then I look on all of you and I see William, and his dreams, in your faces. I see your enthusiasm, love of life, and perhaps also your worries. The future is unknown, but you will contribute to building it.  It is YOUR future.  As engineers, you have a unique skill that you can use to make that world and make it better than the one you find. You have the skills, and the responsibility to use them, not just for yourselves and your families, but for all the life we share this beautiful planet with.  This small, beautiful Earth is our shared home that we must care for and deliver in good shape to future generations. 

I hope you will find something that you can do well with the skills you have worked hard to acquire.  Now that you are engineers, build something beautiful.  Create something meaningful.  Even if it is something small, every day you can look to it, and it will bring you joy. You always hear about passion and inspiration and creativity, and I could go on and on about that. Instead I will ask you not to forget the importance of good, old-fashioned hard work. Successful people work hard—to be successful in your personal life means working hard on your relationships. Success in your professional life means continuing to build your engineering skills as well as the skills you will need to adapt to this changing world: how to read, how to write, how to listen, and how to learn.

No, don’t underestimate the power of hard work, of climbing the mountain, one small step at a time.  This is another lesson from evolution. When you take one step at a time, pretty soon you find yourself high above the clouds!