“Microbiology has a lot in common with astronomy in the sense that it’s not something you can see with the naked eye, and that also involves a search for life. Much like when you detect a cancer cell, astronomers must go outside the pattern to try to find something that is quirky that might be life.”

Lígia Fonseca Coelho, ph.d.

If you visit the Cornell University campus, you may cross paths with Lígia Fonseca Coelho, Ph.D., with a cooler in her hand. Inside this unassuming container, she carries colorful microbes from extreme environments. Dr. Fonseca Coelho measures these microbes through a spectrometer, a device that allows her to capture their essence to create a color-coded guide designed to assist space missions in their search for life beyond earth on other planets.

From her early days as a cancer researcher, where she crafted an anticancer peptide (a short chain of amino acids linked by chemical bonds) that was ultimately named for her, to her current focus on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Dr. Fonseca Coelho blends passion for people and a unique skillset. By building a reference library of substances that provide scientific evidence of past or present life adaptable to extreme conditions, she aims to ensure that no potential signs of life on icy worlds like Europa are overlooked.

During her fellowship, Dr. Fonseca Coelho will grow the most colorful biota (living organisms) imaginable, expanding her catalog of potential biosignatures. Through meticulous modeling, she will determine how biopigments (substances produced by living organisms that have a color resulting from selective color absorption) mixed with different materials might appear through a telescope’s lens—equipping future space missions like JUICE and Europa Clipper with the tools to explore the outer edges of the habitable zone in our solar system and beyond.

As a side quest, Dr. Fonseca Coelho designs experiments to nurture astronaut comfort in highly demanding environments. In 2022, she rallied a group of aerospace engineers to launch the first menstrual cup into space.

Dr. Fonseca Coelho received a Ph.D. in bioengineering from Instituto Superior Técnico – University of Lisbon in Summer 2022. Prior to starting her 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, she will continue to work as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University.