Professor Kathleen Campbell

BSc(Hons) (University of California), MSc (University of Washington), PhD (University of Southern California)

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Kathy is a geologist, paleoecologist and astrobiologist. The broad theme of her research is paleoecology - the interaction of ancient organisms with their surrounding environments - whether they were living in normal marine environments, along geologically dynamic active margins, nestled within coastal dunes and marshes, or are/were surviving in harsh 'extreme' environments such as undersea cold hydrocarbon seeps or terrestrial hot springs. Her extremophile / extreme environment studies have broad implications for questions concerning the origin and nature of early life on Earth and whether life ever existed on Mars. 

Kathy was educated along the geologically active margin of the western USA – from the University of California (Santa Cruz, BSc), to U Washington (Seattle, MSc), to U Southern California (Los Angeles, PhD). Field work in coastal Washington’s rain forest prepared her for the often wet and bush-clad conditions she regularly encounters on North Island field excursions. Even now she is struck by similarities in geology and landscapes between the two regions. In mid-1997, the University of Auckland enticed her from a post-doctoral position at NASA Ames Research Center (Exobiology Branch) in California to take up paleoecological and paleoenvironmental teaching and research in the Geology Department, now part of the School of Environment. Since then she has co-supervised >60 post-graduate students, and has worked with numerous colleagues on multi-disciplinary research projects, both in New Zealand and overseas. Kathy is a member of the GSNZ, RSNZ, GSA, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology) and the Paleontological Society. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Aparangi. She is director of Te Ao Marama - Centre for Fundamental Inquiry - based in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland, which is dedicated to research and outreach activities on the origin and evolution of the Universe and its life. Kathy is the Chair of the Trustees of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network Trust. She participated in the 3rd Mars landing site selection workshop, where the Columbia Hills hot spring site that her team advocated for was chosen as a finalist for the NASA Mars 2020 mission. She is part of an international team of scientists reporting to NASA on the relevance of Mars Sample Return. She is an associate editor or editorial board member on the journals Scientific Reports, PALAIOS, Geobiology, and Palaeontologia Electronica.

Current research is focused on marine hydrocarbon seeps and terrestrial hot-springs as analogues for early life settings and astrobiological targets on Mars and Icy Worlds -- at field sites in New Zealand, Argentine Patagonia, South Africa, Western Australia and the western USA -- in collaboration with groups from the University of New South Wales (Australia); NIWA (New Zealand); U Washington, Calif. Academy of Sciences, Arizona State University, USGS (USA); Leeds Univ (UK); MARUM-GEOMAR (Germany); UNLP (Argentina); and CNRS (Orléans, France).

Research | Current

Current Major Research Focus Areas –

1.         Life in Extreme Environments:

   i)     Undersea hydrocarbon seeps:

Evolution of chemosynthesis; biogeography of vent/seep taxa through geologic time; seep carbonate sedimentology and diagenesis; linkages amongst paleohydrology, tectonics, hydrocarbon generation/migration, and organism distribution in active margin settings. Projects in New Zealand (onshore & offshore), western North America, Alaska.

ii)         Terrestrial thermal spring deposits:

Ground-truth for hypotheses about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere; assessment of biogenicity; microbial fabric analysis; paleoenvironmental gradients in hot spring settings; impact of diagenesis; applications for epithermal exploration. Projects in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone, Coromandel and Northland; Argentinean Patagonia.

iii)         Settings for early life on Earth and hydrothermal systems: Evaluating the paleoenvironmental context of Archean (>2.5 billion year old) microbe-sediment systems, and comparing with younger hot spring deposits. Projects in Josefsdal Chert, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa and Pilbara craton, Western Australia.


2. Use of Trace Fossils in High-Resolution Facies Architecture and Paleoenvironmental Analyses:

Ancient organism behaviour and activity are recorded in trace fossils, making them sensitive paleoenvironmental indicators. Integrative studies utilising sedimentology, invertebrate paleontology and ichnology (study of trace fossils) are especially useful for tracking ancient shorelines (i.e., sea-level change), the most significant paleogeographic datum in sequence stratigraphic analysis, employed routinely in petroleum exploration and sedimentary basin reconstructions. Current focus is on traces reflecting estuarine dynamics, compound-complex traces demarcating plant-insect interactions in coastal dune deposits, and marine shelf storm-tide-flood signatures. On-going studies of Quaternary to modern, marginal marine deposits of Northland, New Zealand, Mesozoic-Cenozoic marine sedimentary sequences of the western U.S.

Teaching | Current

EARTHSCI 103 - Dynamic Earth

EARTHSCI 202 - Evolution of Earth and Life

EARTHSCI 205 - NZ: Half a Billion Years on the Edge

EARTHSCI 303 - Sedimentary Paleoenvironments

EARTHSCI703 - Hydrothermal Systems and Ore Deposits

Postgraduate supervision

Current PhDs

  • Ayrton Hamilton - Siliceous hot-spring deposits as vectors for epithermal mineralisation, Coromandel Volcanic Zone, New Zealand (MBIE-funded scholar; co-supervised with Assoc Prof Julie Rowland)
  • Chanenath Sriaporn - Molecular characterisation of hot spring microbial communities in knobby digitate sinter analogs for Mars biosignature prospecting (co-supervised with Dr Kim Handley, School of Biological Sciences)

Current MScs

  • Yael Heled - iron springs and Fe isotopes (co-supervised with Prof Joel Baker)
  • Diana Pajuelo Aparicio - Mineralogy and geochemistry of high-altitude hot spring precipitates in Peru: link to epithermal mineralisation? (co-supervised with Dr Michael Rowe)

Current BScHons

• Michaela Dobson - facies mapping and characterisation of knobby digitate hot spring sinter at Tikitere, TVZ, New Zealand

• Sian Camp - facies mapping and characterisation of geothermal lake stromatolites and deposits, Lake Rotokawa, TVZ, New Zealand

• Thornton Brooksbank - silceous hydrothermal deposits in Northland, New Zealand - evaluation of new high temperature vent deposits and mapping of siliceous sediments regionally

• Thomas Stolberger - formation and environmental reconstruction of the Waiwiri phosphatic cast bed, Waikato region, New Zealand

• Nathan Collins - fossil trees and palynology of Tamaki estuary, Auckland



• Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2016)

• Distinguished lecturer, XIV Josep Comas i Solà International School of Astrobiology, Santander, Spain, on 'Earth analogues for extraterrestrial habitats' (sponsors: NASA & Spanish Centre of Astrobiology, 2016)

• LE STUDIUM® (Institute for Advanced Studies, Loire Valley) Senior Research Fellow at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Centre de Biophysique Moléculaire, Orléans, France (2014)

• Assigned “A” grade university researcher in assessment for the NZ Tertiary Education Commission’s Performance Based Research Fund (2013-2018)

• Geoscience Society of New Zealand, Hochstetter Lecturer Award (2009)

• Auckland Astronomical Society, Burbidge Lecturer (2011)


2017-18, Director, Te Ao Marama - Centre for Fundamental Inquiry, Faculty of Science (Vice Chancellor's Strategic Development Fund project)

2017-, Chair of Trustees, New Zealand Astrobiology Network (NZAN) Trust

2015-16, Co-Organizer, Spaceward Bound New Zealand (SBNZ) & SBNZ for Youth (MBIE 'Unlocking Curious Minds' funding)

2010-13, 2015-16, Earth Science Discipline Lead, School of Environment, The University of Auckland

Areas of expertise

Life in extreme environments; astrobiology; geobiology; paleoecologic analysis on active margins; methane seeps through geological time; geothermal systems in time and space; trace fossils as environmental indicators and high-resolution markers of past-shorelines; sedimentology; paragenesis; carbonate and silica diagenesis.

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Westall, F., Hickman-Lewis, K., Hinman, N., Gautret, P., Campbell, K. A., Bréhéret JG, ... Dass, A. V. (2018). A Hydrothermal-Sedimentary Context for the Origin of Life. Astrobiology, 18 (3), 259-293. 10.1089/ast.2017.1680
  • Nelson, C. S., Nyman, S. L., Campbell, K. A., & Rowland, J. R. (2017). Influence of faulting on the distribution and development of cold seep-related dolomitic conduit concretions at East Cape, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics, 60 (4), 478-496. 10.1080/00288306.2017.1372489
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Julie Rowland
  • Djokic, T., Van Kranendonk, M. J., Campbell, K. A., Walter, M. R., & Ward, C. R. (2017). Earliest signs of life on land preserved in ca. 3.5 Ga hot spring deposits. Nature Communications, 810.1038/ncomms15263
  • Westall, F., Foucher, F., Bost, N., Bertrand, M., Loizeau, D., Vago, J. L., ... Bréhéret J-G (2015). Biosignatures on Mars: What, Where, and How? Implications for the Search for Martian Life. Astrobiology, 15 (11), 998-1029. 10.1089/ast.2015.1374
  • Campbell, K., Lynne, B., Handley, K., Jordan, S., Farmer, J., Guido, D., ... Perry, R. (2015). Tracing biosignature preservation of geothermally silicified microbial textures into the geological record. Astrobiology, 15 (10), 858-882. 10.1089/ast.2015.1307
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Kim Handley, Bridget Lynne
  • Westall, F., Campbell, K. A., Bréhéret JG, Foucher, F., Gautret, P., Hubert, A., ... Guido, D. M. (2015). Archean (3.33 Ga) microbe-sediment systems were diverse and flourished in a hydrothermal context. Geology, 43 (7), 615-618. 10.1130/G36646.1
  • Drake, B. D., Campbell, K. A., Rowland, J. V., Guido, D. M., Browne, P. R., & Rae, A. (2014). Evolution of a dynamic paleo-hydrothermal system at Mangatete, Taupo Volcanic Zone, New Zealand. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 282, 19-35. 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2014.06.010
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Julie Rowland, Pat Browne, Bryan Drake
  • Guido, D. M., & Campbell, K. A. (2014). A large and complete Jurassic geothermal field at Claudia, Deseado Massif, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 275, 61-70. 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2014.02.013


Contact details

Alternative contact

Kathleen is also known as Kathy Campbell

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 301 - Bldg 301
Level 4, Room 435
New Zealand

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