Natalie Grefenstette, photo by by Doug Merriam

Natalie Grefenstette was still in elementary school when she started wondering about life: how it began on Earth, where it might be elsewhere in the Universe. These questions became her obsession long before she first heard the word “astrobiology.” In fact, the still-nascent field of astrobiology was only starting to form as Grefenstette entered college. “So I had to approach it a different way,” she says. She studied biochemistry as an undergrad at University College London, looking at how cells and life work on Earth through things like proteins and disease. In 2017, she completed her PhD, also from UCL, in prebiotic chemistry.

The questions that have captured her lately are: How different might life look elsewhere in the Universe? How do we look for life beyond Earth if we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for? Are there universal laws — perhaps based more in physics than in chemistry — that govern life on Earth and beyond? 

Grefenstette joined SFI last June as a Program Postdoctoral Fellow working with SFI Professor Chris Kempes on the NASA-funded Agnostic Biosignatures project. “There aren’t many people asking these questions, so I’m lucky to have found this program,” she says.