For La Cañada resident Frances Arnold — a biochemical engineer and professor at Caltech whose work in guided evolution holds promise for new biofuel sources and unprecedented medical advancements — the past year has been a whirlwind.
She received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in October 2018, sharing the honor with George P. Smith and Sir Gregory Winter. Accepting the award that December in Stockholm, Arnold was only the fifth woman worldwide to be awarded the prize out of 177 recipients since 1901.
But that was just the beginning.
“Ever since then it’s been a madhouse,” Arnold said in a recent interview. “I received 2,000 invitations from all over the world. I’ve met presidents of countries. I’ve met kings. When I go to South America or I go to the Middle East, or to China, they treat me like Kim Kardashian.”
Now, the 63-year-old mother of three (son William died in an accident in 2016) has been selected for yet another honor, this time much closer to home — she was recently named grand marshal of the 47th annual Fiesta Days Parade, a highlight of the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce’s Fiesta Days Memorial Weekend festivities.
Speaking in a phone interview on a rare day off while harvesting tangerines from the yard of her La Cañada home, Arnold said she was thrilled to selected.
“I’m really glad to do this. I respect the town, I respect the people and their values,” she said. “It’s a huge honor.”
Fiesta Days Parade Chair Barbara Marshall said Arnold’s selection as grand marshal of the parade fits perfectly with the theme of the event, “A 2020 Vision for Progress.”
“I’d already asked her if she’d ride in the parade, and the more we thought about it, the more it made sense to ask her to be grand marshal,” she said. “Winning the Nobel Prize, living in La Cañada — what an example of the progress of women.”
Also making an appearance at the Fiesta Days celebration will be women wearing suffragette attire who marched in the Pasadena’s Rose Parade in January as part of a grassroots collaboration Pasadena Celebrates 2020.
Operating under the aegis of the nonprofit National Women’s History Alliance, marchers are marking the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
Arnold, who travels the globe speaking on her work and its implications, recently returned from a week in San Diego and has engagements booked on the East Coast and in Mexico. In a few weeks, she will head to South America.
But as she’d planned to stay in town for the Memorial Day weekend, the Caltech professor happened to be free when parade chair Marshall came calling.
Arnold says she hopes her son, James Bailey — a former Army helicopter crew chief who served in Afghanistan and now works as a flight technician for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — might accompany her if he isn’t in Florida working on the Mars 2020 Rover.
As grand marshal, Arnold heads off the Memorial Day parade, which begins at 10:30 a.m. May 25 near La Cañada’s Memorial Park.