Professor Kathleen Campbell

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

Profile Image


I am a geologist, paleoecologist and astrobiologist. The broad theme of my 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. My 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. 

I 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 me for the often wet and bush-clad conditions I regularly encounter on North Island field excursions. Even now I am struck by similarities in geology and landscapes between the two regions. In mid-1997, the University of Auckland appointed me 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 I have co-supervised 79 post-graduate students, and have worked with numerous colleagues on multi-disciplinary research projects, both in New Zealand and overseas. I am a member of the GSNZ, RSNZ, GSA, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology) and the Paleontological Society. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Aparangi. I am 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. I participated in the 3rd & 4th Mars landing site selection workshops hosted by JPL/NASA, where our team advocated for returning to the Columbia Hills hot spring site in Gusev Crater to look for evidence of biosignatures, a top three finalist site for the NASA Mars 2020 mission. I am part of an international team of scientists reporting to NASA on the relevance of and strategies for Mars Sample Return. I am an associate editor / editorial board member on the international scientific journals Scientific Reports, PALAIOS, Geobiology, and Life.

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); University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Minnesota, Arizona State University (USA); Leeds Univ (UK); MARUM-GEOMAR (Germany); UNLP (Argentina); CNRS (Orléans, France); Centro de Astrobiologia (Spain), and others.

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

ASTRO 200 - Astrobiology

EARTHSCI 120 - Planet Earth

EARTHSCI 202 - Evolution of Earth and Life

EARTHSCI 203 - Earth Materials

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 (Australian Research Council funded scholar; co-supervised with Dr Kim Handley, School of Biological Sciences)
  • Michaela Dobson - Early life on land in 3.5 billiion year old hot spring deposits in Western Australia (University of  Auckland doctoral scholar; co-supervised with Dr Michael Rowe, and Prof Martin Van Kranendonk (UNSW))
  • Francisco Enrique Saldaña Monroy - Trace fossils in Mexican and New Zealand deep-water settings (CONACyT Mexico funded scholar; co-supervised with Dr Lorna Strachan)

Current MScs

  • Thomas Stolberger - Paleoecology of basal Waitemata strata (Miocene), Mathesons Bay (co-supervised with Dr Lorna Strachan)

Current other scholars

• Alysha Jones - Stratigraphic distributions of lithofacies in Miocene basal Waitemata strata, Mathesons Bay

•  Yaxian (Cien) You - Giant Cretaceous sinter deposits in China



• Distinguished lecturer, National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) International School of Exoplanet & Astrobiology, Chiang Mai, Thailand (2019)

• 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 (2013-2024)

• 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

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

• Auckland Astronomical Society, Burbidge Lecturer (2011)


• Director, Te Ao Marama - Centre for Fundamental Inquiry, Faculty of Science, The University of Auckland (2018-19)

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)

  • Guido, D. M., & Campbell, K. A. (2019). Plastic Silica Conglomerate with an Extremophile Microbial Matrix in a Hot-Water Stream Paleoenvironment. Astrobiology, 19 (12), 1433-1441. 10.1089/ast.2018.1998
  • Beaty, D. W., Grady, M. M., McSween, H. Y., Sefton-Nash, E., Carrier, B. L., Altieri, F., ... Benning, L. G. (2019). The potential science and engineering value of samples delivered to Earth by Mars sample return: International MSR Objectives and Samples Team (iMOST). Meteoritics and Planetary Science, 54 (S1), S3-S152. 10.1111/maps.13242
  • Nelson, C. S., Campbell, K. A., Nyman, S. L., Greinert, J., Francis, D. A., & Hood, S. D. (2019). Genetic link between Miocene seafloor methane seep limestones and underlying carbonate conduit concretions at Rocky Knob, Gisborne, New Zealand. NEW ZEALAND JOURNAL OF GEOLOGY AND GEOPHYSICS, 1-23. 10.1080/00288306.2018.1561474
  • Campbell, K. A., Guido, D. M., John, D. A., Vikre, P. G., Rhys, D., & Hamilton, A. (2019). The Miocene Atastra Creek sinter (Bodie Hills volcanic field, California and Nevada): 4D evolution of a geomorphically intact siliceous hot spring deposit. JOURNAL OF VOLCANOLOGY AND GEOTHERMAL RESEARCH, 370, 65-81. 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2018.12.006
  • Soto, M. F., Hochstein, M. P., Campbell, K., & Keys, H. (2019). Sporadic and waning hot spring activity in the Tokaanu Domain, Hipaua-Waihi-Tokaanu geothermal field, Taupo Volcanic Zone, New Zealand. Geothermics, 77, 288-303. 10.1016/j.geothermics.2018.10.005
  • 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


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

Web links