During a period of self-discovery in Germany, Ben K. D. Pearce grew to love the complex problem-solving required to shed light on the grandest conundrums of the universe. Today, he strives to unravel the mystery of life’s origins by identifying the sources of its necessary biological ingredients. As an experimentalist deeply grounded in theory, Ben rigorously tests how the building blocks of life might arrive and evolve in freshwater ponds. He won the 2017 Cozzarelli Prize for his research, which computationally modeled how meteorites bombarding ancient Earth seeded ponds with the essentials for forming RNA—the first information storing and replicating molecule of primeval life on Earth. By directly quantifying the accumulation of such biological compounds, Ben’s work elevated the plausibility that life first formed in small, warm ponds, rather than fissures at the bottom of the ocean.

During his fellowship, Ben will construct a lab-based experiment to simulate the effect an early Earth environment would have had on a freshwater pond—taking into account drastic atmospheric shifts, outgassing volcanoes, lightning strikes, and UV radiation. He will then create artificial precipitation and evaporation cycles to observe how seasonal and daily variations would impact chemistry within the pond. Ben’s efforts will help uncover the compositions that lead to the production of RNA, bringing the planetary science field closer to understanding the beginnings of life on Earth and the search for it elsewhere. Ben received his Ph.D. in physics and astronomy with an astrobiology specialization from McMaster University in Summer 2021. Prior to starting his fellowship, Ben will continue to work as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

“We’ll never know for certain how life began on Earth, but we can demonstrate how it could have emerged—and that, in turn, could be a way life might begin on other planets.”