Reaching Rarefied Heights

James Campbell

James Campbell

Profession: Meteorologist, Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey, Calif.


  • Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, University of Utah
  • Doctorate in Atmospheric Sciences, UAF

James Campbell’s career is in the clouds, literally. The UAF Ph.D. graduate works for the Naval Research Laboratory, where he leads a team that models aerosol particles and ice clouds in the atmosphere to create visibility and transmission forecasts for the nation’s warfighters. It’s the latest step in a career that has taken Campbell to five continents and also, during a previous stint at NASA, had him monitoring instruments in orbit on the Space Shuttle.


Please tell me about your job.

My background is in using lasers to profile what we call aerosols or pollutants - atmospheric particulates - and cloud ice crystals. We do this using laser atmospheric profilers, or LiDARs. It’s very similar to radar but a different wavelength and energy; it’s about a thousand times smaller than a radio wavelength so you’re sensitive to things about a thousand times smaller in the atmosphere.

Currently (at the Naval Research Laboratory [NRL]) I am the Section Head for our Atmospheric properties and Effects section, which focuses on cloud and aerosol particle radiative features. We model them and how they impact warfighter systems.

How did you end up in this career?

I never intended to do this. It was a long weird path to get here. I started watching the Weather Channel when I was a boy and it’s just about that simple. I took to meteorology. I thought I would end up a forecaster for the National Weather Service.

grad student
Campbell at UAF, fall 2003.

In fact, I applied for the National Weather Service, and in a pivotal life movement I was offered a job in Youngstown, Ohio. But, then I walked across the University of Utah campus and was offered a job on the spot to stick around, try graduate school, and that’s how I got into LiDAR and cirrus clouds. Aerosols became a natural extension of what we were learning then do.

I graduated [from UAF] in December of ‘06 with my Ph.D in Atmospheric Sciences and I previously got my Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree from the University of Utah in ‘93 and ‘97 respectively. After Utah, I worked for six years out in D.C. at the NASA Goddard Space Flight center as a contractor.

I was a terrible undergraduate student; it just didn’t click. At some point it clicks for everybody, I guess, something clicks. Goddard is where I got a sense for where it all sort of plugged in. I had got the grades, passed the qualifiers and everything, wrote a decent Master’s thesis, but then I worked for six years, met great and kind people who helped make all of the connections, and that was crucial. I like to think of it as pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – you start to get the outer bits right, but really the inner bits are where the picture is. And so, I got the outer bits [at school], but then going out and working I was seeing where all these things really tied in.

What was your job at Goddard?

The group that I was working with was preparing what would become the first satellite LIDAR in space. And that mission was actually a joint one, using lasers to make both cryosphere ice sheet and atmospheric measurements. That was the “ICE-Sat,” and there’s now an ICE-Sat 2. ICE-Sat is one of NASA’s great legacy programs because with a laser you can do altimetry, so right now they are currently mapping terrain all over the world. The project that I, to this day, still support, was rooted in profiling the atmosphere in support and verification of the, now, two NASA satellite lasers in space.

But, hey, I got to Goddard in summer 1997 and within three months the principal investigator I was working for had an instrument on the space shuttle. So, I’m three months out of school and we were doing eight-hour shifts in the comms lab at Goddard making command calls to the instruments when we had windows. I just had no idea what I was doing. It makes a lot of sense now. But, believe me, I was totally out of my element.

What led you to resume your studies?

Campbell coaching baseball at West Valley High School in spring 2007.

I could have stayed at Goddard and everything would have been great,. Goddard was an amazing opportunity. I learned so much, and many of the friends I made remain to this very day. But, I made the decision to go get the Ph.D so that I could attempt science of my own volition. Goddard was and remains a very important place to me. I still work with a lot of those folks. It’s as much my home as Monterey now. And, I’m incredibly grateful that I can share with those friends as much as I can here. I’m blessed.

My family and I got up to UAF in the summer of ‘03 and it only took me three and a half years to do the Ph.D, which was great. Since I had been working at Goddard, I came with a data set, instead of having to do the experiments. I had the great fortune of studying under some folks who have now retired; the team that was there at the time was just brilliant, really brilliant classes, as good as anything in the country. So, I did a postdoc for a year after that and then left to come down here, and took this gig in Monterey.

What are your current job responsibilities?

One of the first things I learned when I got to NRL and began working for the Navy is that the atmosphere is a battlespace environment. So, there are tactical systems that operate based on atmospheric energy propagation; whether those be laser communication systems or laser weapon systems.  Visibility has always been our key focus. Our primary asset is a model for aerosols to predict visibility conditions globally for the Navy. I’m lucky to lead that team, it’s about nine federal employees, two postdocs and a contractor right now.

We support an entity called “Fleet Numerical Meteorological and Oceanographic Command” – FNMOC is the acronym. FNMOC is responsible for all weather and oceanographic models for warfighter operations globally. So, any forecasting that’s going on within the fleet worldwide reaches back to the products that come out of FNMOC. The easiest way to think about our NRL division is as the research wing for FNMOC.

We’re also called the Navy’s ‘corporate laboratory’ – we work on what’s called a ‘capital working fund,’ which allows us the freedom to seek out external monies to work for agencies like NOAA, NASA, and the NSF. We do some things for commercial groups like General Electric, Google, we support firms like that with meteorological information. But primarily our focus is on the Navy and the warfighter.

I work for a wonderful, wonderful agency. The lab is very well-respected worldwide and we want to maintain that. NRL expects you to be state-of-the-art, world science leaders, doing it for the warfighter. And that’s a lot of fun, it can be really rewarding when you can take the big picture we’re learning and go, how can the warfighter gain tactically from this? So, you’re always trying to make that connection.

Are there other areas you’re applying your research?

Michael R. Hart, NRL Strategic Communications Office
Campbell at work at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Another thing we’ve been working on is in the Arctic Circle and up north of the Brooks Range as you get towards the sea ice. There is a focus right now on seasonal sea ice prediction – advance, high-accuracy, seasonal ice prediction. So, we have been looking at aerosol impacts on that, because aerosols do two things: they can block sunlight and scatter it back to space, and they can also absorb some of the earth’s radiation and reradiate it back down. And, they can also deposit on ice which can change the color of ice, which can change how it melts. This is a community question, and there’s not a lot that’s known about how aerosols are impacting the Arctic system because there are not a lot of observations.

We have a study right now that is funded by NASA looking at those impacts and how those impacts may influence seasonal sea ice breakup prediction. Obviously, as you can expect in a changing climate, the Navy wants to be able to increasingly navigate those waters if they are going to be open during certain times of the year. So, we can go out to an agency like NASA and ask a state-of-the-art science question and put up a state-of-the-art science hypothesis, but all the while we are reaching back plugging into Navy models.

Fairbanks is one of the great places to base a lot of work from because you’re so close, and there are the Department of Energy sites up at Utqiagvik that are some of the true great national laboratories. And the UA system has everything sitting there in the right places, with the right people up there - I’m always excited to see what new things are coming out of the schools.

What would be your advice to current students?

Alaska is one of the unique places in the world.  Embrace it and value it and do what you can to bring back to it, to give what you can to it. Of all the places you could have gone, you picked one of the more unique places, so just own it. Go ‘all in.’

We made really good friends up there and we enjoyed the community part of Fairbanks, which you don’t always get. You’re an Alaskan and people are there to help you. There’s a sense that ties everybody through the whole thing.

What were some big lessons you learned on your education and career journey?

south pole
Campbell at the South Pole in December 2000. He had traveled there to replace an atmospheric LiDAR.

A lot of what we do is about relationships. It comes down to how you treat people and how you’re treated. That colors so much of what you do and what you’re able to accomplish.

The toughest times were always driven by people’s personalities. The toughest lessons you learn are how to navigate that because it’s always going to be there. There are always going to be people throwing up unnecessary roadblocks to trip you along the way. That’s where you learn what you’re really made of, how you can navigate that and still try to get to where you’re going - and if you’re responsible for people with you, getting them to where they need to be as well.

That’s another great thing about working here at NRL, is the opportunity to work with the warfighter. We’re dealing with enlisted folks, customers, sponsors, advocates, all the time. I love that part. Because there’s that ‘chain of command’ and there’s the inherent respect built into all those relationships. I really appreciate that part.

NRL has been a rewarding path. We are trying to grow the team, investing in young students. We are always looking for outreach to universities to support young people’s careers. The Navy can provide a lot of opportunities. NASA provided me a ton of opportunities. I got to see a lot of the world both working for NASA and in this gig, going out and doing fieldwork. I’ve done fieldwork on five continents, I’ve been to the South Pole, I’ve been to the Maldives, and so being able to share these opportunities with young people is really rewarding and promoting diversity and inclusion, influencing the next generation of scientists is an increasingly large priority at this point in my career.

At some point you recognize that it is fundamental. It has to be a fundamental part of your responsibility. Because otherwise what are you doing?

Interview by Courtney Breest, Alaska NSF EPSCoR. Click here for more Faces of STEM. All photos courtesy James Campbell except where otherwise noted. For information about student programs and internships at the National Naval Laboratory visit