Organic Geochemist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Heather Graham is an organic geochemist with a profound curiosity about the natural world, the history of life, the vast connections between biotic and abiotic systems, and what evolution can tell us about our future. Her research focuses on the fundamental scientific development of tools and techniques that can help us identify “agnostic biosignatures” – evidence of living systems that may not share common biochemistry with life on Earth. Life detection methods that do not presuppose a common heritage with life on Earth are becoming more important as we travel farther out in the solar system and may even help us understand novel life deep in the earth where potential ecosystems have been out of communication with the surface of the planet for billions of years. With a diverse background in biology, analytical chemistry, paleontology, and statistical modeling, Graham combines her expertise in the expression and preservation of chemical biosignatures with an understanding of the constraints of space flight instrumentation.
She currently works with the Mars Curiosity Rover science team, and uses the SAM instrument to study deuterium on Mars, when she’s not crying or falling in love with her male colleagues that is…
But in a prior life she studied the evolution of land plants and their adaptations to light. Her favorite organism is lichen and her favorite science topic is terrestrialization – how those first pioneers left the relative coziness of the ocean to occupy the Earth’s surface.
Heather thinks of science as a cultural product – a reflection of our collective values and dreams – and likes to write about the conversations between science, society, and art. Recently she premiered “Determination of Azimuth,” a math-space-rock opera about the life of mathematician Katherine Johnson, the first woman and African-American in NASA’s Flight Mechanics and Spacecraft Controls Branch, and her work on the Apollo Program.