The sole female recipient of the Millennium engineering prize states, “We require a larger representation of women.”
Despite having received numerous accolades, including the Nobel Prize, Prof Frances Arnold stands out as the only woman to have been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize, which is often considered the engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The nominations for the 2024 €1 million prize ended last week, and it has been reported by the organizers that only 16.3% of the nominees were women. This marks the highest percentage of female nominees since the award was first launched in 2004, with the exception of the 28.1% in 2022.
Arnold, an American chemical engineer, expressed a desire for greater diversity among the recipients of these prizes. This is based on the understanding that individuals from diverse backgrounds bring valuable contributions to the field of technology. The statement was made to the Observer.
The Technology Academy Finland (TAF), which presents awards, has encouraged the scientific and engineering fields to prioritize women when developing innovations that aim to improve quality of life.
In 2004, Tim Berners-Lee was the first recipient of an award for creating the world wide web. Others have also been acknowledged for their contributions to fields such as DNA fingerprinting, fibre optic networks, and stem cell research. However, according to Arnold, it may take some time for more women to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s crucial to keep in mind that these awards often acknowledge projects that were initiated 20 or even 30 years ago, a time when women were not as prevalent in the technology field as they are now,” she stated. “Therefore, I anticipate there will be a rise in nominations for women as more remarkable women enter the technology community.”
It is possible that women may not receive as much recognition because they often work in teams. These types of awards often focus on acknowledging the contributions of one or a small number of individuals.
Arnold expressed her excitement about being awarded the prize in 2016 for her research on directing the evolution of enzymes. As an engineer, she considers this award to be equivalent to the Nobel prize for engineers. Two years later, she also received the Nobel prize in chemistry for similar concepts, although she is unsure of the connection between the two achievements.
According to her, achieving victory required a significant amount of effort and resilience. It involved enduring challenges and getting back up after being knocked down. One must be willing to accept criticism and put in the necessary work. She never avoided this, as she did not want to miss out on any opportunities for enjoyment. She has a passion for research and innovation and did not believe that only men should have the opportunity to experience it.
Aside from her studies, Arnold also serves as co-leader of President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and instructs at the California Institute of Technology.
“50% of our undergraduate students are female, indicating a strong presence in the pipeline. However, it remains uncertain if they will continue to pursue academic research opportunities.”
According to Arnold, women frequently have a broader perspective and are more likely than men to pursue leadership roles in various industries. However, she suggests that in these positions, their potential for significant breakthroughs may be limited.
She made a significant finding: she could cultivate enzymes in a similar manner to how people breed sheep or yeast. This process, known as directed evolution, involves deliberately causing mutations in enzymes and then handpicking those with desirable properties, such as the ability to produce fuels, medicines, chemicals, and consumer goods. Prior to this, most researchers focused on studying individual components of enzymes in order to design them.
She stated that it has similarities to the black box method used in artificial intelligence. She also noted that there are many correlations between AI and not just generative AI, but all forms of artificial intelligence. This is because they are both used to tackle intricate problems. For example, designing an enzyme is a highly intricate problem that cannot be solved by simply listing all the important interactions – so far, no one has been able to do so.
Machine learning and AI excel at identifying significant patterns, even if we may not recognize them in the same manner as the machine does. However, these patterns can greatly enhance the efficiency of enzyme engineering. As someone who frequently works with AI, I have firsthand experience of its capabilities.
“They’re both methodologies for traversing complex landscapes, we’d say. And you can meld them. Evolutionary search is a very simple search process on a complex landscape. Machine learning can do it in a different way. And there are many opportunities for melding these processes.”
The TAF is actively seeking more nominations of women for their prize. According to Dr. Markku Ellilä, the academy’s CEO, the issue lies in the structural barriers that discourage women from pursuing careers in science from a young age. To address this, the academy plans to collaborate with universities and host pitching competitions for PhD students, as well as nominate candidates for Singapore’s Global Young Scientists Summit.
The head of the academy’s board, Minna Palmroth, who is a professor of computational space physics, stated that they are making progress. In this round of nominations, they tested a campaign specifically targeting women, which showed promising results. However, there is still more work to be done, which is why the prize will continue to encourage more women to be nominated in the future.