Born in Montreal, Quebec, as a teenager Elson often travelled Canada with her geologist father as he performed field research. She earned a bachelor's degree from Smith College, a master's degree from the University of British Columbia, and attended Cambridge University where she received a Ph.D. in astronomy. Elson did her postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study under the supervision of John N. Bahcall, after which she took up a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College, where she taught creative writing. In the early 1990s she returned to Cambridge to accept the research position she would hold for the remainder of her life. Her work centered on globular clusters, chemical evolution and galaxy formation.
Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 29. With treatment, it went into remission, and in 1996 she married the Italian artist Angelo di Cintio. However, the cancer returned soon afterwards. Elson died of the disease in Cambridge in May 1999, at the age of 39.
A volume of wide-ranging poetry and essays she wrote from her teens until shortly before her death was published posthumously as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001 in the United Kingdom, and in 2002 in the United States. The works were selected by di Cintio and a friend and fellow poet, Anne Berkeley, from a much larger body of unpublished efforts. Some of the works refer to vast concepts of physics and astronomy, often in unexpectedly abstract or playful ways, to reflect aspects of human experience. Others reflect profound joy with life or poignant observations of her impending death. The collection was selected as one of the best books of the year by The Economist.
Elson also contributed to 52 scientific research papers in her short career.
- A Responsibility to Awe (2001) ISBN 1-903039-54-1
- Samples of Elson's poetry from Chabot College
- "A critical moment in stellar evolution", a bulletin from the journal Nature describing research by Elson