Frances Arnold: I was always good at teaching myself things. If I wasn’t going to let the world teach me, I was going to learn through my own experiences. Believe me, this was painful because many of those experiences were not such great experiences. I was hungry; I was lonely. I probably was in danger a lot of the time. The cities were not safe; the city streets were not safe. But I had to do it through my own experience.
And that power — so when you’re 15, you don’t have any power. I remember so clearly saying, “I’m so frustrated because I want to do all these things, but I have no mechanism to do it. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to travel around the world. I don’t know how to run my life or learn these things. But what my power is, is collecting knowledge.” And somehow I knew, early on, that knowledge was like money in the bank. That if you could collect experiences, that if you could learn — teach yourself calculus — that if you could read a history book, all of which I loved to do; if you could teach yourself music, then somehow, I had the knowledge or the conviction that that would add up.
So I got to go to college. I got into Princeton and not on my grades but probably for some of the other crazy things that I did in arts and music. And it probably didn’t hurt that my father was a Princeton grad with his Ph.D. in physics and knew some of the engineering faculty there. And it also probably didn’t hurt that I was the only woman ever to apply in mechanical engineering in the ‘70s. Actually, I think there were two or three before me, but it was just so unheard of. And that was good advice that my father gave me, that if I just applied in engineering, they would look at me. And when they looked at me, they would find me interesting and capable, if not having proven that through grades. And I got into Princeton, and that’s what I studied — engineering.