Rebecca Elson was born in Montréal, Canada. She and her family often traveled during the summer with her father, a geologist, on his research field trips. She graduated from high school at age 16 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Smith College, a master's degree from the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Cambridge. She did postdoctoral work in 1986 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. She wrote an article on star clusters for the Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, becoming one of the youngest authors in that publication's history. In 1989, she was the youngest astronomer to serve on a committee for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences decennial review. She became a fellow of Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute, a multidiscipline center for women scholars, where she taught creative writing. She returned to Cambridge in 1991 as a research associate in the Institute of Astronomy. Her work ranged from searching for stars in the halo of our own galaxy to exploring regions of rapid star formation far across the universe. She contributed to 52 scientific research papers in her short career, and her poetry was published in magazines in the USA and UK, appearing regularly in Rialto.
At the age of 29, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Following treatment, the disease went into remission, and in 1996 she married Angelo di Cintio, an Italian artist. However, the cancer returned and she died at the age of 39.
A volume of poetry and essays she wrote from her teens until shortly before her death was published posthumously as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001.