Kara L. Nelson

Title
Professor of Environmental Engineering
Department
Dept of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Phone
(510) 643-5023
Research Expertise and Interest
water and wastewater treatment, water reuse, detection and inactivation of pathogens in water and sludge, appropriate technologies
Research Description

Kara Nelson is a Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.  She received her B.A. degree in biophysics from U.C. Berkeley, her M.S.E. degree in environmental engineering from the University of Washington, and her Ph.D. in environmental engineering from U.C. Davis. Her research program addresses critical issues at the intersection of public health and the environment, with a focus on reducing the threat posed by waterborne pathogens by improving our engineering infrastructure to make it more effective, affordable, as well as maximize its environmental benefits.  Specific research areas include mechanisms of pathogen inactivation, molecular techniques for pathogen detection, optimizing treatment processes, water reuse, and challenges with providing safe drinking water and sanitation in the developing world.

Dr. Nelson has published over 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including two invited reviews, and one book chapter. She is the Director of Graduate Education at the Engineering Research Center for Reinventing our Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), and the faculty leader of the Research Thrust Area on Safe Water and Sanitation at Berkeley Water Center.  Dr. Nelson was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) at a ceremony in the White House in 2004.  This award is the nation’s highest honor for scientists in the early stages of their career.  She currently conducts research in the United States, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Panama. 

In the News

October 29, 2020

UC Berkeley launches pop-up lab to monitor Bay Area sewage for COVID-19

Since the discovery that people infected with COVID-19 often shed the virus in their feces, scientists around the world have scrambled to spot signs of the virus in the stuff that we flush. However, detecting tiny virus particles amid the wastewater that flows through our sewage pipes — which includes not only toilet water, but sink water, shower water and everything else that goes down a drain — is no easy feat.
June 24, 2020

Monitoring COVID-19 prevalence in municipal wastewater

Current efforts to track the spread of COVID-19 have largely relied on individual testing and hospital admission numbers. However, these data do not detect trends in the virus’s spread in the greater population, including those who are asymptomatic.
August 27, 2018

UC Berkeley leads new assessment of Bay Area climate impacts

California today issued its latest assessment of the many challenges the state faces from climate change — including wildfires like those still raging throughout the state – and highlighted for the first time the regional impacts with nine deep-dive reports spearheaded by University of California scientists.

In the News

October 29, 2020

UC Berkeley launches pop-up lab to monitor Bay Area sewage for COVID-19

Since the discovery that people infected with COVID-19 often shed the virus in their feces, scientists around the world have scrambled to spot signs of the virus in the stuff that we flush. However, detecting tiny virus particles amid the wastewater that flows through our sewage pipes — which includes not only toilet water, but sink water, shower water and everything else that goes down a drain — is no easy feat.
June 24, 2020

Monitoring COVID-19 prevalence in municipal wastewater

Current efforts to track the spread of COVID-19 have largely relied on individual testing and hospital admission numbers. However, these data do not detect trends in the virus’s spread in the greater population, including those who are asymptomatic.
August 27, 2018

UC Berkeley leads new assessment of Bay Area climate impacts

California today issued its latest assessment of the many challenges the state faces from climate change — including wildfires like those still raging throughout the state – and highlighted for the first time the regional impacts with nine deep-dive reports spearheaded by University of California scientists.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
February 8, 2021
Alex Salkever
In a mere five months, a modest, 1,200-square-foot "pop up" testing lab at the University of California, Berkeley, has been transformed into one of the country's only high-throughput facilities for measuring COVID-19 viruses in sewage water.  "When we test wastewater, we get information about a really large number of people with a very small number of samples, and we get information about asymptomatic infections," says Kara Nelson, who leads COVID-WEB and is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News.
January 19, 2021
Misha Gajewski

The COVID-19 virus can be picked up in wastewater before it's found in a clinical setting and researchers in a new study say this could be really useful for tracking new mutations of the virus, like the B.1.17 strain that is now widespread in the U.K. and has already been introduced in the U.S. "SARS CoV-2 virus is excreted by individuals that are infected by COVID-19 and the fecal waste ends up in the wastewater systems. By sampling wastewater, we can get information on infections for a whole population. Some wastewater systems serve several thousand people. Some serve hundreds of thousands of people," explained the study's lead author Kara Nelson, from the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News.

November 5, 2020
Betsy Foresman
The University of California, Berkeley set up a temporary laboratory where it is testing sewage water to spot signs of COVID-19 in the San Francisco Bay Area. "From the very beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that there were major limitations to the ability to test every individual in a population frequently enough to find out whether they were infected or not," said Kara Nelson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "Wastewater naturally pools the waste from hundreds to even millions of people in a single sample, so if you can collect a representative sample of wastewater and analyze it, you can gain a tremendous amount of information that you likely couldn't gain through testing people individually." For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News.
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