Raised by her father following her mother's death after childbirth, Atkins received an unusually scientific education. Her father was a respected scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, was well connected to important contemporary scientists like Davy and Hershel, and particularly close to Fox Talbot, the inventor of practical photography. Thus she was in a perfect position to be educated in science and become aware of the new photographic processes.
Her first contribution to science was her engravings of shells, used to illustrate her father's translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells, which was published in 1823. From then on she became interested in botany, especially algae. She was elected a member of the Botanical Society of London in 1839/40, one of the few scientific societies open to women at that time. Atkins continued to collect specimens for herself and used her Botanical Society connections to secure samples that she could not find locally.
Her most valuable work was British Algae, published in batches between 1841 and 1853, and possibly intended as a companion volume to William Harvey's Manual of British Algae (published 1841) that contained no illustrations. By contrast, Atkins' book was the first to use photograms (or photographs). Along with Sir John Herschel, she was one of the rare users of cyanotypes, in which the picture appeared as an architectural blueprint, thus making it unsuitable for portraits. They both valued the process because it was straightforward - being less prone to variation than calotypes - as well as cheap and easily fixed in water, as it had no use for silver or hypo.
However, British Algae was not regarded as a seminal work in botany, possibly one of the reasons why it has received so little acclaim. She stopped producing it shortly after her father died, although continued to make other cyanotype volumes, such as Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854).