Oceans and outer space have always fascinated Jacqueline Campbell. As a child, she would think about oceans on icy moons or faraway exoplanets and ponder whether any of them harbored life.
Growing up in an impoverished area of London, Campbell had no one to encourage her to pursue a career in science. “It never occurred to me that you can become a scientist,” she said. Instead, she worked as a station assistant and train driver on the London Underground and later as a care worker for a charity that supports autistic people.
Nevertheless, her interest in science continued to grow. Campbell took a series of evening classes while working full time. She struggled at first, but thanks to perseverance and support from people around her, she gained the confidence to sign up for a degree course at the University of Brighton, where she did very well.
Campbell spent her graduate work at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, searching for signs of the building blocks of life on the surface of Mars. Organic molecules are absent from the sterile Martian surface, but researchers like Campbell think they might appear in the polar areas uncovered by sublimating ice. Campbell did lab experiments to get an idea of what the molecules mixed with Martian dust could look like and searched for them using satellite imagery of Martian ice caps.
“If I can help one other person become a professional scientist, I would double my contribution to science.”
She didn’t discover molecules on Mars, but the skills she developed turned out to be very useful much closer to home.
As a Schmidt Science Fellow at the University of Oxford, Campbell is now developing a technique to use satellite imagery to detect the acidity level of Earth’s oceans. The majority of ocean acidification studies rely on scattered direct sampling; if it works, her method will enable continuous long-term global measurement of acidity and help combat climate change.
Campbell realizes only too well that science is still out of reach for many. To raise public awareness of the natural world and encourage people from underrepresented backgrounds to study science, she engages in many outreach activities and openly talks about her career path at conferences and institutions. “If I can help one other person become a professional scientist, I would double my contribution to science,” said Campbell.
Campbell encourages people to reach her through email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
—Jure Japelj (@JureJapelj), Science Writer