Zoe Todd Will Join the Department in 2023 to Study the Origins of Life

In the summer of 2023, Dr. Zoe Todd will join the UW-Madison as an assistant professor in Chemistry and Astronomy. She is a NASA Hubble Fellowship Program Sagan Fellow with the David Catling research group in the Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. As a postdoctoral fellow, she has continued her research path of investigating the planetary origins of the prebiotic polymers that gave rise to life.

Todd earned her doctorate from Harvard University with her thesis, “From Astronomy to Chemistry: Origins of the Building Blocks of Life.” She holds a bachelors degree in astrophysics, biochemistry, and physics from Penn State University.

What’s the focus of your planned research?

I am interested in investigating the origins of life on Earth, and understanding the implications for the possibility of life on other planets. Astrobiology is inherently interdisciplinary, relying on fields ranging from astronomy, physics, planetary science, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. My research utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to attempt to understand how the astronomical and planetary environments may allow for the chemical/biochemical origins and evolution of life. For example, I work on constraining favorable planetary environments that may provide the chemicals necessary for origins of life. I also investigate prebiotic chemistry in the laboratory to better understand the constraints on the planetary environment and the plausibility of the chemistry. I hope to work towards tracing out a continuous and plausible path for the origins of life: from the astronomical and planetary environments seeding the necessary feedstock chemicals, to the synthesis of the building blocks of life (e.g. ribonucleotides, amino acids, or alternatives), and finally to the development of the first self-replicating and functional protocells. By using a combined astronomy/chemistry approach in the planetary context, we may be able to make substantial progress on understanding the fundamental and intriguing question of if we are alone in the universe.

What most excites you about coming to UW-Madison?

I’m really excited to join the robust research community at UW-Madison and make the best use of the collaborations across the department and beyond. I’m very excited for the Wisconsin Center for Origins Research (WiCOR) and the opportunities this will bring. I’m also looking forward to nice views of the various lakes!

What can students expect from you in class or in the lab?

Students can expect to be exposed to a broad range of topics in astrobiology and origins of life, ranging across various fields. Beyond purely research, it is important to me that students are adequately supported in their endeavors. I hope my classrooms and labs will be safe environments for all, where everyone is treated equitably and is supported through challenges they may face. I hope to foster a collaborative environment, where everyone contributes and shares their knowledge to their peers. With a field as broad as astrobiology and origins of life, no one person can be an expert in everything, so sharing our expertise with each other is incredibly valuable.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?

Outside of work, my main hobby is horseback riding. I have a pony named Peter, who has been with me since he was six months old. We mostly do English pleasure/hunter riding these days. He has a very big personality (and yes, he loves meeting new people)!