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Nobel Prize-winner returns to Allderdice, where she used to cut class

Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, May 13, 2019


For Frances Arnold, it was the first chance since 1974 to walk the halls of Allderdice High School, where she’d completed so little required homework, cut so many classes and been bored so often all those years ago.


For some 70 science-oriented students at the public school in Squirrel Hill, it was a first chance to see and receive advice from a Nobel Prize winner.


Those two seemingly contradictory opportunities converged to mutual satisfaction Monday afternoon during a 70-minute question-and-answer period featuring Ms. Arnold, a California Institute of Technology professor and researcher who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The prestigious prize came 44 years after she left Pittsburgh to achieve academic success at Princeton University and later worldwide acclaim, from a laboratory base in Pasadena, as a pioneer in enzyme evolution.


Frances Arnold

That future might have been hard to forecast in her teens, gifted with natural intelligence and curiosity for self-taught learning at a time when social unrest and Vietnam War protests made school seem a secondary concern, she explained to the students.


“No one knew how to navigate this,” Ms. Arnold said of her own high school era. “I just navigated it by pretty much missing school most of the time — not recommended!”


The school visit was arranged with Allderdice officials by InnovatePGH, a public-private partnership that featured Ms. Arnold as the keynote speaker Monday evening for the start of its annual Life Sciences Week. It marked a rare homecoming for the biochemist, originally from Edgewood, who has described a rebellious childhood defying conventions and authority figures, whether at school or home.


To prove this particular Nobel laureate’s unusual origins, she marked a mirthful reunion with 95-year-old former Allderdice principal William Fisher, a guest in the classroom, by showing him one of the notes he sent to her parents warning about Ms. Arnold’s expulsion if she kept skipping school.


Any student was able to attend the professor’s visit but none was compelled, so all of those listening were attentive. She urged them to focus on learning all they could — whatever the subject, because they don’t really know what they’ll end up pursuing — and especially to get a solid math foundation and learn to write. 


Read more in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Nobel Prize-winner returns to Allderdice, where she used to cut class