Highlighting Women in Geobiology: Dr. Heather Graham
I am a research associate with Catholic University of America but I work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory.
My research focuses on developing tools and techniques for biosignature detection, especially for life that does not share the same biochemistry as life on Earth.
What drew you to geobiology and your current research?
I come to astrobiology from paleobiology. I’ve always been interested in other worlds and life on Earth in deep time is just as foreign to us! My PhD research involved understanding when and how plants adapted to shade, what innovations were necessary and the chemical clues that indicate these changes. I love looking for hints to these hidden worlds in chemistry and geology and from that building an understanding of how life meets limitations that challenge basic functions.
What are the biggest questions that drive your career?
I’m most interested in understanding the possibility space for life – what are the limits on this planet? Is there niche space that has been vacated that was previously inhabited? What do these limits tell us about habitability on other planets?
If you had unlimited funding and resources — what’s your dream research project?
I’m very interested in understanding life’s most distant relatives, in the distant, inconvenient and inhospitable corners of the Earth. Places like the deep subsurface that might be cut off from the fecund parts of our planet, forcing different evolutionary paths.
Do you have any advice for young women and girls interested in pursuing STEM?
I think there is a lot of cross-over here between my research. Women need to be inventive about the path they take in science since the system is not designed for, nor particularly hospitable to women. Be imaginative and make sure you accommodate family and other interests along with your research!
What’s the one thing you think folks should know about what you do?
I think people should understand that researching topics that seem wildly fantastical like “life as we don’t know it” actually requires a deep understanding of the fundamentals of life, chemistry and physics. Creative thought needs to be well-rooted in the basics before it can leap into the unknown.