headshot of Kara Nelson

Research Expertise and Interest

wastewater based epidemiology, water and wastewater treatment, water reuse, detection and inactivation of pathogens in water and sludge, appropriate technologies

Research Description

Dr. Kara Nelson is the Blum Chancellor's Chair in Development Engineering and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.  Prof. Nelson teaches courses and conducts research on critical issues at the intersection of public health and the environment.  Her research program investigates practices for wastewater based epidemiology, water reuse, disinfection, nutrient recovery, and international WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), which draw on her expertise in a wide range of treatment processes including filtration, membrane processes, ion exchange, and disinfection with UV, sunlight, and ammonia.  Prof. Nelson teaches courses on innovation in the water sector, drinking water and wastewater treatment processes, pathogen detection and inactivation, and natural treatment systems.  She led the Engineering Research Thrust at ReNUWIt (www.renuwit.org) and a large regional program to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater (COVID Wastewater Based Epidemiology for the Bay Area; www.covid-web.org).  Prof. Nelson is passionate about creating a climate in which everyone belongs and can reach their full potential, and previously served as Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion in the College of Engineering.

In the News

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.

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.

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.
October 30, 2020
Michael Williams
Researchers at UC Berkeley are collecting and testing the wastewater of millions of Bay Area residents, with the hopes of being able to spot a possible coronavirus infection cluster before the virus spreads. "We hope that there is not an increase in infections and a third wave, but we're hopeful now that we have this wastewater monitoring tool available, that we will be ready if there is a third wave," said Kara Nelson, a professor in civil and environmental engineering who leads the research group. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have also appeared in the Mercury News, the Daily Californian, and on ABC-7, CBS Bay Area, and Fox News.
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