Patek received her A.B. with honors in Biology from Harvard University followed by a Ph.D. in Biology from Duke University. She was then awarded a Miller Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Berkeley. She has received several honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the George A. Bartholomew Award for distinguished contributions to comparative physiology, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a NSF CAREER award, and the Brilliant 10 award from Popular Science magazine. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Hellman Family Foundation, Armstrong Fund for Science, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and others.