Between a rock and a good place

30 November 2017
Professor Kathy Campbell
Professor Kathleen Campbell

When not on field trips with her students, or working on the backside of the Andes in Patagonia and elsewhere around the world, Professor Kathy Campbell can be found situated on the fourth floor of the new Science building. It is perhaps fitting to see that the view from her office is none other than Auckland’s premier volcano, Rangitoto Island, rising languidly from the sea.  

Not surprisingly for a geologist, Kathy’s office is full of rocks, some of which are billions of years old. But what makes many of these rocks more than a bit special, is the stringy or bumpy looking matter threaded within the rock itself. These are fossil microbes trapped in minerals that may hold the key to knowing if there was ever life on Mars, and maybe even solve the question about how life began on Earth.

Kathy’s own beginnings growing up in California ignited a fascination with geology from the many family trips to national parks up and down the west coast. “It was a dream,” says Kathy of the tectonically active margin of the western USA.

“I was surrounded by stunning geology from the Golden Gate to the Grand Canyon – you can’t help but notice the spectacular rocks out there so beautifully exposed.”

At a very early age, Kathy immersed herself in National Geographic magazine, which is how the science-minded child made the connection between her precocious interest in rocks, minerals and fossils, with research.

“I remember reading an article about coral reefs and I was very aware what research was and that this is what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

Initially not straying far from home, Kathy attended the University of California at Santa Cruz. Struggling to decide whether to pursue geology, a fellow student from a completely different discipline gave Kathy advice that has seen her right ever since.

“He said to me, ‘Why would you let a little maths and physics get in the way of what you really want to do?’ So I majored in Earth Science, then after graduation did a bit of environmental management work, but ultimately decided to return to academia and I’ve never looked back.”

An incredibly clear career trajectory is the result of Kathy’s all-consuming confidence in her subject and commitment to research. While completing a masters at the University of Washington in Seattle, Kathy saw an opportunity to learn more about the organisms she’d been studying as fossils by auditing an undergraduate zoology course.

“I attended all the labs and classes except the exam, and during one class the professor showed us a slide of an odd clam found offshore of Oregon at some natural gas seeps. He told us that the clams don’t have a gut but grow large because they contain bacterial symbionts that live off the chemicals exuding from the seafloor hydrocarbon seeps.” As a result, Kathy had a revelation.

I’d been finding some enigmatic fossil clusters of the same clam out in the field, and so in that moment in the classroom, seeing that specially adapted living clam, the penny dropped and I realised I’d discovered one of the first marine methane seeps to be recognised in the geological record,” says Kathy. “A chemo-synthesis-based paleocommunity – thriving in extreme conditions.”

It was while Kathy worked on her PhD at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles that her life-changing, science-epiphany with the clams and their microbes saw her change contact details with a NASA scientist who had heard of her research. This “lucky break” saw Kathy work at NASA as a post-doc, researching the fossil microbes and minerals of methane seeps. At NASA she was introduced to hot springs at Yellowstone, another kind of extreme environment. And it is her work with hot springs that brought Kathy to New Zealand.

Much has happened between then and now. Kathy is celebrating 20 years in New Zealand in July. She has become a world renowned specialist in extreme environments, using them to help search for life on other planets. This work includes being part of an international team vetting possible landing sites for the NASA Mars 2020 mission. The team recently pitched a proposal to return to Columbia Hills to look for fossil biosignatures, a place where the Spirit rover found signs of ancient hot springs that need further study. In February, their site was chosen in the ‘Final 3’, to be whittled down to only one in 2018.

“I can still go and work on ‘this little rock’ and tell you more about it,” says Kathy. “But what has happened as I have become a more mature scientist and professor is that I can now sit back and take a broader look at the implications and applications of my work. There are a lot more people interested now because the research is no longer just about describing one place or another, but looking at what it means in the big picture. Does it help us find life on Mars, the origin of life, or track the deposition of gold in the ‘plumbing’ of an old hot spring?”

Alongside Kathy’s recent election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, joining a select group of scientists who hold this honour, she was the recipient of two Marsden awards. One Marsden was for her work on hot springs and the other for her work on hydrocarbon seeps. Kathy is currently working on exciting projects with colleagues such as geophysicist Ingo Pecher, researching frozen methane gas deposits in the seabed off the East Coast of New Zealand. She is also working with Associate Professor Julie Rowland to see how to use hot springs to find gold in the Coromandel.

Kathy cites the overall importance of mentoring and collaboration in the science community as being the linchpin towards progressing with research and training the next generation to critically observe the natural world.

“Luckily as a junior scientist, I had senior geologists who took me under their wing and helped me get publications and my teaching going, and got me started on the work with the hot springs,” she says. “We work so hard on our individual careers but research is not possible without collaboration with our students, colleagues and all the support from our families.”

Nowadays, Kathy has also turned her hand to outreach in the community and one of her shared initiatives is Spaceward Bound for Youth, the first project of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network Trust, which she helped set up in 2016. The Spaceward Bound programme brings school teachers and students together with New Zealand and NASA scientists to learn about how research is done in the field of astrobiology. Funded by MBIE’s Unlocking Curious Minds project and partnered with local trust Te Tauma ta o Ngāti Whakaue, Kathy and the team worked with 20 Māori children (8-16 years old) to explore Rotorua environs for Mars and early life analogue studies. “The kids got stuck right into it,” recalls Kathy, “and their final presentations were all about phreatomagmatic eruptions* and habitable environments on Mars.”

Kathy and her partner Andrea Alfaro, a professor of Marine Ecology and Aquaculture at AUT, are raising their daughter Ella to embrace the sciences – not difficult to do when it is her parents’ bread and butter. Even though she loves to surf and play water polo, Kathy is proud to point out that Ella is also good at science because she is “surrounded by it.”

"Children in New Zealand’s schools need to know that the search for extra-terrestrial and early life is not just for people in Europe or the USA and that they can learn about and contribute to this field too.

“It’s thrilling for me that my topic is very conducive to getting kids excited about science. Our lineage ultimately goes all the way back to those earliest microbes. The first appreciable oxygen on the planet came from ancient microbes!

Understanding our place in the world, where we come from, and how long it takes for geological processes to produce the resources we need – these things are important to give us some perspective. We are all stewards of this world and it’s not just about exploiting it but also about being responsible to this and future generations,” she says.

“If we don’t care for our planet a bit more now and in the future, then we may wind up having to move to the Moon, or Mars!”

*An explosive water-magma interaction. Large amounts of steam and magmatic gases are emitted.

Between a rock and a good place originally featured in the School of Environment's inaugural magazine ENVoices (2017).