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Millennium Technology Winner: Young women should choose science over celebrity – and here’s why

David Mac Dougall
Millennium Technology Winner: Young women should choose science, not celebrity - and here's why.
Millennium Technology Winner: Young women should choose science, not celebrity - and here's why.
This week on HSTV's Newsmakers, the 2016 Millennium Technology Winner Professor Frances Arnold talks to David Mac Dougall about her research, innovation and education in Finland, and how to get more students - especially girls - involved in science and engineering.

The winner of the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize say she 'racks her brains' thinking how to get more girls involved in science at a young age.

Professor Frances Arnold makes the comments on this week's episode of Newsmakers, HSTV's weekly English-language current affairs show.

”Women do extremely well if they choose that science and technology is where they want to put their talent”, says Professor Arnold.

”Women tend to choose lots of different things, and we have to work hard to convince them that yes, they can have a rewarding life doing science and technology.”

Women are ”flooded with lots of media about stars and modelling”, says Professor Arnold, ”they don't know how important science is for everything they do”, she adds.

”I think that if girls know what a fun career this is, they wold flock to it in hoards. Imagine being able to spend your career [...] studying the remarkable things that biology has created, and then solving real world problems.”

Arnold has been recognised by the Technology Academy of Finland for her ongoing work in the field of biochemical engineering, and specifically, 'directed evolution'.

To non-scientists, the professor's area of expertise sounds very high-minded. But Professor Arnold offers a very simple explanation.

”Just like human beings have been breeding cats and dogs and lab rats for thousands of years, with this new technology of being able to manipulate DNA, we can now breed molecules, proteins, the catalysts of life, to do things that we want them to do, to help our daily lives”.

Her work at CalTech - the California Institute of Technology - has applications in all sorts of areas of everyday life, even if most of us don't realise it.

”Everything from laundry detergents to making different foods, making drugs, to biofuels”, explains Arnold. ”Anything that uses biology uses enzymes. And humans have become very clever at making the enzymes do their jobs better, so you'd be surprised in your daily life how many products you use that have enzymes made by directed evolution.”

The Technology Academy of Finland awards the one million euro prize every second year, and Professor Arnold is the first woman to be given the prize, which was instituted in 2004.

The Millennium Technology Prize awards scientific innovations which enhance the quality of peoples' lives in a sustainable way.

This year the Academy's eight-person selection committee received nominations for 79 candidates, double the previous number, which they say shows how the award's prestige is increasing within the scientific community, particularly in Finland.

Speaking before the award ceremony, Professor Arnold said she was ”thrilled” to be in Helsinki. "It means a lot to me because Finland is a country where real quality education is appreciated, and people think about the importance of science, and education, and opportunity".

Expressing a deep concern about the environment, Professor Arnold says her work can be used to help people live a more sustainable life, with a lower impact on the environment. She notes that "Finland has been at the forefront of the bioeconmy" and that the cleantech industry is a prominent innovator in Finland.

”I think the whole world wants to live in a more sustainable fashion”, says Arnold. ”There are a lot of people on the planet and we all want to live a good life, so we have to figure out how to obtain what we need in our daily lives without destroying the planet. So yes, there is a strong push to find whatever technology can enable us to do that.”

Professor Arnold says a ”large fraction” of her prize money will go to the US taxman. But she will also spend it on her family and on charities that she cares about. She'll also invest in technology startups that are looking for solutions to some of the issues she is also interested in.

”What fascinates me is solving this cleantech problem, is providing technology where we can do a much better job making the chemicals and materials we need. And I'm particularly interested now in agriculture, how to make that more sustainable, reduce pesticide use, because we have a growing population. We have to feed more people, clothe more people, house more people, and do it without destroying all the other things that we value in our environment.”

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