Fellow alumnus wins Nobel for chemistry

A graduate of my high school has just won a Nobel Prize.
I’m holding before me a front-page clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and looking at the smile (is it triumph? or shock?) on the face of Frances Arnold, 62, now a California Institute of Technology professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry. She is one-third of a trio honored for “harnessing evolutionary principles to create new proteins.” The other two are men. She is only the fifth woman ever to score a chemistry Nobel; the most recent before her was almost 10 years ago.
So, what can I say except: What happened to all the rest of us who went to Taylor Allderdice? It was, and still is, a public school, a neighborhood school. It always did, and still does, have an excellent academic reputation — such that people with children often factor that into their home-buying choices. But — a Nobel?
In my own class — which exited those somewhat hallowed halls more than two decades before Dr. Arnold graduated — was a young man who received his doctorate in art history from Yale and retired after a long career as director of the Frick Museum in New York City. I thought that was tops — but not a Nobel. Arnold distinguished herself at Princeton and is now one of the few, according to the news release, who can claim simultaneous memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.
What a surprising list of achievements. But what’s even more surprising is what the achiever says herself about her high school days: “I didn’t take chemistry then. I was too busy cutting classes.” Talk about late bloomers. And she wasn’t a child of wealth and privilege, either: While she was at Allderdice, she worked part-time at Walt Harper’s Attic, a Pittsburgh club owned by a mildly nationally known local jazz pianist. And after graduation, before college, she drove a Yellow Cab.
At some point, our high school established a Hall of Fame, and one of its first members was Iris Rainer Dart, who has written nine novels. Best known is “Beaches,” which later became a film starring Bette Midler and Mayim Bialik. (This should clue you that the subject matter would resonate with us because the author was Jewish — as were many students of Allderdice in that long-gone past.)
Iris also had a humble childhood; her father owned and operated a neighborhood hardware store, known citywide for the kind of appealing disarray that led to a sort of cult belief: Virtually anything could be found on its shelves if one only looked long enough. Which was probably true. So, her literary achievement is not to be looked down upon. Still — it’s no Nobel.
Dr. Arnold’s big prize comes from “harnessing the power of evolution,” according to Goran K. Hansen, who is secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Her work is being used to create sustainable biofuels, the Academy says, thereby “contributing to a greener world.” And now, for the winning statistics: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 110 times to 180 individuals since 1901 — a quite small but incredibly distinguished collection of scientists.
It’s now obvious that somewhere along the line, after a lackluster high school career, Allderdice’s winner somehow took to heart the motto that stands forever, carved in stone over our school’s main entrance even before its doors first opened in 1927: “Know Something. Do Something. Be Something.” Or maybe not. Maybe it just happened. Sometimes in life, things just happen.
I suspect this Nobelist’s next honor will be election to the Taylor Allderdice High School Hall of Fame. Given her record there, plus her Nobel, she may just laugh at this. But she may embrace it. I’ll never know. Still, I’ll always be wondering: What in the world happened to the rest of us?

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