Frances Arnold: I still believe that collecting experiences is what life is all about. And I had no intention whatsoever of being a mechanical engineer. I took that as an opportunity to get into a good school, and then I found out they had very few requirements at Princeton. You could get a degree in mechanical engineering without knowing a lot of engineering because Princeton undergrads did not become practicing mechanical engineers. They went on to finance or law school. And so they didn’t really feel they needed to teach us piping diagrams or something like that.
So I took that opportunity to study languages and economics and literature and Russian and have just a wonderful experience learning as many things as I could. And then all of a sudden, I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. And that was after living in Italy. I lived in Italy, and I worked as a mechanical engineer — hated that, absolutely hated that. And I worked in Spain and Brazil. And I said, “Wow, I could be a CEO of a company. I could be a diplomat.” I had no idea what these jobs actually entailed, but I wasn’t sure what to do.
And I found out that I really cared about what was happening in society at the time. This was now the end of the ‘70s, and we had so much disruption, particularly in energy. So you remember the oil crises and cars going all around the block waiting to get gassed? We had these huge disruptions, and you could tell that our way of life and the future was in danger if we didn’t learn how to live sustainably. So I took it on myself to help implement President Carter’s plan of 20 percent renewable energy by the year 2000.