Polly Arnold: Keeping her foot on the gas

Polly Arnold, Copyright Carlos Chavarria

By Michael Barnes

2020 has been a rough year, but the College of Chemistry nevertheless started it off on the right foot by welcoming a stellar new faculty member. Polly Arnold, the new director of the Chemical Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), joined the College of Chemistry faculty in January. Arnold, a synthetic chemist, is fascinated by the chemical properties of rare earth and actinide elements and explores them to address environmental and other societal problems.

Says Arnold, “Many of the lanthanides and actinides, the f-group elements at the bottom of the periodic table, have several unpaired electrons in their 4f and 5f orbitals, making their bonding properties unusual and complex. I’m interested in probing these properties, both for the new fundamental discoveries we’ll make, and their potential to create useful catalysts and materials. We also are looking for ways to reduce the risks of storing nuclear waste.”

Arnold was born in London in 1972. Although her parents were educated in the humanities, they didn’t quite know what to make of their empiricist daughter. “I was always off exploring on my own or nailing things together in the back yard,” says Arnold. “I admired the aviator Amelia Earhart, with whom I share a birthdate. My mother jokes I was raised on benign neglect and BBC Radio 4.”

Arnold attended an all-girls school in Ealing, West London and transferred to Westminster School for her final two years of high school. The school is one of oldest in England, dating back to the 1370s. It still occupies its original home on the grounds of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Arnold arrived there at age 16, one of 10 girls who were boarders. “At first it was frightening, but we had brilliant teachers who got us involved. And the location was amazing. We took advantage of it by occasionally sneaking out at night to roam the streets of London.”

At the age of 18, in 1990, Arnold entered Brasenose College at Oxford. “After Westminster, I wasn’t spooked by Oxford,” she states. There her love of chemistry bloomed, especially once she could work independently in the lab. She completed her chemistry MA in 1994 and then moved to her next destination, Sussex University.

For Arnold, Sussex was in some ways comparable to Oxford. “Sussex has been called Oxford-by-the-sea,” she notes. However, it was in other ways quite different. Sussex was built in the 1960s, a campus of modernist red brick buildings, just four miles and a 20-minute bike ride to the Brighton Palace Pier, one of England’s iconic holiday landmarks. Although she was drawn to Brighton’s (relatively) dry, balmy climate and to its pebbly beaches and sea breezes, her mainstay was the lab.

She joined the research group of Geoff Cloke, who studied organometallic chemistry, the creation of complexes containing bonds between carbon and metals. In particular, the group worked to push the boundaries of chemical bonding with metals in unusual oxidation states. The lab also developed new functional groups, or ligands, that attach to the central metal in an organometallic molecule and help control its reactivity.

In 1997 after three years at Sussex, Arnold submitted her thesis, “Low Valent and Low Co-ordinate Complexes of Transition Metals and Lanthanides,” and was awarded her Doctor of Philosophy (D. Phil.) degree (the equivalent of the American Ph.D.) She ended her thesis acknowledgements with this quote:

My soul, do not seek immortal life, but exhaust the realm of the possible. Pindar (518-438 BC).

Later in 1997 she traveled to MIT as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar where she worked as a postdoc in the lab of organometallic chemist Christopher Cummins. There she explored the chemistry of uranium and ways to use its unique properties to activate inert bonds in simple compounds. She returned to England in 1999 to begin her academic career in inorganic chemistry at the University of Nottingham, where she remained for eight years.

In 2007, she moved 250 miles north to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2013, she was appointed the Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry. She remained at Edinburgh until her new position as the Chemical Sciences Division Director at Berkeley Lab brought her to the Bay Area in 2019.

Polly Arnold, portrait courtesy of the RSE’s ‘Women in Science
in Scotland’ exhibit. Image: Ian Georgeson

The awards and accolades began to accumulate during her time in Edinburgh. Her official title was, in the British style, Professor Polly Louise Arnold OBE FRS MAE FRSE FRSC DPhil. In order of importance those acronyms refer to Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society, Member Academia Europaea, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and Doctor of Philosophy.

Plaudits for Arnold came in two distinct areas. First she was recognized for her creative and powerful inorganic synthesis techniques, especially in the areas of organometallic and actinide chemistry. Second, she was recognized for her encouragement of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Edinburgh has a long history of successful female chemists. However, both there and elsewhere in the United Kingdom women are still under-represented in science fields, making up approximately nine percent of the United Kingdom’s science professors. Arnold noted the gender difference at the School of Chemistry. Edinburgh has made it a much more accommodating place to work. This difference sparked her interest in how Edinburgh was so different from other universities.

Meanwhile, in 2012, she became aware of a disturbing study that was published in the United States about bias against women in science. In the study, science professors at six research universities received fabricated applications for a laboratory manager position. Some professors received an application from a student called ‘John,’ while others received an identical application from a student called ‘Jennifer.’ The results revealed that the scientists were biased against women, with female scientists just as likely as the males to favor male candidates. Regardless of gender, the scientists rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant.

That same year, Arnold won the 2012 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award. The award honors Franklin, the unheralded X-ray crystallographer whose painstaking work helped reveal the structure of DNA. It is given to an individual for an outstanding contribution to any STEM field and intended to support the promotion of women in STEM. The award included a grant of $40,000. Arnold used the funding to produce A Chemical Imbalance, a short documentary film and book that asked why Edinburgh was different regarding gender balance, and what lessons could be applied to other universities. The film and book are freely available online.

In a BBC interview, Arnold discussed her work. “I wasn’t naïve when I started the project. I knew that I wasn’t going to find the magic bullet,” she related. She found that strong mentoring interventions at key moments in the careers of women were part of the story. Another critical piece was creating a flexible workplace. Arnold continued, “We know that the changes that we make to the workplace and to our attitudes that benefit women also benefit everybody else, not just the other minorities, but also men. If we make a more flexible workplace then men will also benefit.”

In her new roles at Berkeley Lab and the College, Arnold will divide her scientific research between focusing on f-block homogeneous catalysis at her College lab, and actinide chemistry at her Berkeley Lab on the hill. In both locations, she intends to continue her advocacy for equality of opportunity in STEM fields. “I’m not taking my foot off the gas,” she stresses.

When Arnold has a moment to catch her breath, it’s Edinburgh that she misses, not her childhood home. “London is now a big sprawling financial center. Everywhere you look there are painful reminders of the gap between rich and poor. But Edinburgh is still a small, lively city. You can take a walk to the beach. There’s always a thought-provoking lecture to attend with a friend and a nearby place to stop for glass of wine afterwards.”

From Arnold’s new lab at Berkeley Lab, it’s a quick walk to the cafeteria where she can take in its gorgeous views of the Bay Area. As a grad student at Sussex, she was just a few miles from the English Channel. As a professor at Edinburgh, it was even a shorter walk to the Firth of Forth. Now, as a National Laboratory division director, she finds herself in yet another lively academic town, this one just a few miles from the San Francisco Bay. Let’s hope that it soon starts to feel like home.