Q&A with Dr. Phoebe Cohen
Dr. Phoebe A. Cohen is a Professor of Geosciences at Williams College and is involved in numerous research projects with the NASA Astrobiology Program. Cohen studies the fossil record to uncover clues about the evolution of complex life on Earth. In her work, she studies interactions between life and our planet and how these interactions influenced the origin of animals. This can help astrobiologists better understand where complex life might arise in the Universe.
Cohen recently took part in a panel discussion at NASA Headquarters entitled “Ancient Earth, Alien Earths,” where she talked about how studying the early Earth could help scientists identify similarly habitable planets around distant stars.
Recently, Astrobiology Magazine’s gURLs in Space spoke to Cohen about how she became interested in astrobiology and the path that led her to professional success in science.
Astrobiology Magazine (AM): What or who inspired you to follow a career in science?
I was always interested in science and nature when I was young. My dad was a biologist when I was growing up, so I’m sure that had a big role in my interests. As a kid, I wanted to live in the woods and study wolves and foxes! As I grew older, my interests broadened and for a while I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. But when I got to college, I took a few really wonderful courses that cemented my love of science — one on conservation biology, and one on the history of the earth. At that point I was hooked, but it took some support from mentors and my parents, as well as a lot of work, to help me move from being a student to having a career in science.
AM: How did you become interested in Astrobiology?
Cohen: I was always interested in space, and for a while used to say I wanted to be the first woman on Mars! When we got the internet way back in the early 90’s I used to go to the NASA website, which at the time was all text — no pictures!! I discovered I was too short to be an astronaut, which was disappointing, but didn’t dampen my interest too much.
When the Pathfinder Mars rover landed, I was a senior in high school and that really captivated my attention. It blew my mind to think that as I went to class and did my homework on Earth there was a little robot driving around on Mars looking for signs of life.
As a research scientist, my interest in Astrobiology returned when I was finishing up my graduate work and had the opportunity to be a part of a NASA Astrobiology funded research team. I began to see how my work studying early life and earth had a lot of applications for the search for life elsewhere.
AM: What scientific questions do you hope to answer with your work?
Cohen: I want to know how and when complex life evolved — eukaryotic cells like the ones all animals, plants, and protists have. I’m trying to piece together events that happened over 700 million years ago which is exciting but also hard work! How did life go from being single celled to multi-celled? Why did it happen when it did, and what role did changes in the Earth’s environment play in that transition? Figuring this out helps us reconstruct how earth and life evolved together over time, and how a similar story might play out on another planet.
AM: What was your educational path? And were there any informal education opportunities or opportunities like internships that were important along the way?
Cohen: I went to Cornell University as an undergraduate and was an Earth Systems Science major, which gave me a broad background in both the geosciences and biology and ecology. After that, I worked at a natural history museum for two years, which was a really important time in my life. I wasn’t a student anymore, but discovered I still loved learning and wanted to be involved in science. I also got to explore my love of education, which continues to today. After my time at the museum, I did my PhD at Harvard University, which was a very challenging but rewarding experience. When I completed my PhD, I went to MIT as a postdoctoral fellow funded by MIT’s NASA Astrobiology team, where I did research and also headed up the team’s education and outreach work. That was an unusual move for someone like me — to spend so much time doing outreach — but I love it, and it paid off in the end. I got a great job at Williams College three years ago where I get to do both of the things I love – research and teaching!
AM: What advice might you have for young students interested in a career in Astrobiology?
Cohen: Most importantly, I would say be curious! Explore your world, and seek out opportunities to learn. Also, a strong educational foundation is really important. The great thing about Astrobiology is that foundation can be in many fields – chemistry, biology, geosciences, engineering, and other areas. I would say much of my success comes from working hard, being willing to fail, and asking other people for help and guidance. Find mentors and use them!
AM: Do you have any particular advice for young women in science?
Cohen: Science is not a boy thing or a girl thing, it’s a human thing, and we are all humans. If you don’t have support at home or from your teachers, try to seek out a mentor elsewhere. There are many more women in the sciences now than there were even when I started college, but there are still some challenges women face. You have to face those challenges head on, keep a strong sense of confidence in your own abilities, and again, ask for help or guidance if a situation is making you feel discouraged or uncomfortable. In addition, there are many women-specific opportunities in science now, so seek those out. Some internships, summer programs, and scholarships are set aside just for you, so go out and take advantage of them!