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Heather Graham is questioning assumptions about what life can be

She is making sure we can trust future claims of alien life by thinking about how life forms might evolve differently on other planets.

CIFAR Fellow Heather Graham has an insatiable curiosity, and an uncanny ability to spot shaky assumptions that the rest of the world takes for granted.

Take plants that thrive in the shady understory of forests, for example. During her PhD, Graham studied when plants evolved the ability to grow in the shade. “They’re automatically living where there’s not much food,” she says. “That’s kind of crazy. What’s even weirder is that it appears that this ability is fairly recent.” By studying fossil seed plants from around the time the dinosaurs were wiped out, she discovered the ability to grow in the shade developed around the end of the Cretaceous period. 

Graham’s enthusiasm about the world around her led her to pursue interests in the arts, boat building, and botany before settling on a career in science. Her journey brought her to academia later than many of her peers.

“I’m a bit of a newbie,” says Graham. “I started college when I was 30.”

Graham was drawn to science by the idea that chemicals could organize into lifeforms, and evolve over billions of years to adapt to their planets. 

She is now a fellow in CIFAR’s Earth 4D: Subsurface Science & Exploration program and a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, where she investigates agnostic biosignatures: signals of life that don’t assume life has to develop as it has here on Earth.

“The interplay between a planet and life is really fascinating to me,” says Graham. “I’m sure that once you go to a different physical system, there’s going to be a whole different set of interactions. There will be a whole different negotiation between the planet and the organism that’s going to dictate what is competitive biology.” 

 

CIFAR’s Earth 4D: Subsurface Science & Exploration program meetings have been energizing for Graham, even in the midst of a pandemic. Their first in-person meeting, in November 2019, spurred several ideas that burgeoned into Catalyst Fund projects that explore promising directions for future research.

“We sat and talked and started batting around crazy ideas,” says Graham. “I just love having a forum to do that. We were really able to be creative.”

One Catalyst Fund project, with CIFAR Fellows Bénédicte Ménez (Paris Diderot University) and Magdalena Osburn (Northwestern University), is about finding natural places that don’t support life.

“There’s this Geoff Goldblum-like idea that life finds a way,” Graham explains. “That’s actually not true. There are niches of this planet that are completely uninhabited, and those become really interesting. What is the thing that broke it?”

Graham’s research directions may seem counterintuitive: finding ways to look for life as we don’t know it and looking for places that don’t have life. Her work is paving the way for trustworthy discoveries of life on other worlds. This important research, combined with her infectious enthusiasm and collaborative spirit, distinguish Heather Graham as a brilliant mind in CIFAR’s community. 

 


Additional photography provided by nasa.com

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