Kara L. Nelson

Blum Chancellor's Chair in Development Engineering
Research Interests
Pathogen detection & removal (in water and sludge), Water reuse, Nutrient recovery, Drinking water and sanitation in developing countries, Wastewater-based epidemiology

663 Davis Hall

Office Hours

Fall 2023: 

Tuesdays, 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm (663 Davis)

Nelson headshot

Kara Nelson is the Blum Chancellor's Chair in Development Engineering, Chair of the Development Engineering Graduate Group, and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley. Nelson’s research investigates practices to improve wastewater-based epidemiology, water reuse, disinfection, nutrient recovery, and international WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene). She teaches courses on innovation in the water sector, drinking water and wastewater treatment processes, pathogen detection and inactivation, and natural treatment systems. Nelson is the recipient of the Chancellor’s Public Service Award for Campus Community Partnership, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation PECASE Award.  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.


Ph.D., Environmental Engineering, the University of California at Davis, 2001

M.S.E., Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, 1996

B.A., Biophysics, the University of California at Berkeley, 1992

Nelson’s research focuses on a wide range of treatment processes, including filtration, membrane processes, ion exchange, and disinfection with UV, sunlight, and ammonia. Her research group aims to advance environmentally sustainable and socially equitable water infrastructure and practices around the globe by studying complex systems. Nelson led the Engineering Research Thrust at ReNUWIt and a large regional program to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. Here are a few of the research projects she is currently working on below:

  • Monitoring SARS-CoV-2 concentrations and strains in wastewater to inform an effective public health response Since the early days of the pandemic, Nelson’s lab group has been developing methods to measure the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and determine which strains are circulating. They operate a regional program to monitor COVID in the SF Bay Area
  • Pathways of Enteric Pathogen Transmission in Rural Bangladeshi Households - Diarrheal illness is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). These illnesses result from the transmission of fecal pathogens, which are a concern in areas with inadequate sanitation facilities. Pathogens can be transmitted from human and animal feces to a new host through hands, soil, water, flies, and surfaces. Fortunately, proper sanitation practices can block the transmission cycle of these pathogens. Nelson’s lab group investigates the transmission of enteric pathogens from human and animal sources in the context of a randomized controlled trial in rural Bangladesh, focusing on the impact of an improved sanitation intervention.
  • Microbial Communities in Intermittent Water Supply - Intermittent water supply (IWS), defined as piped water supply that is available to consumers for less than 24 hours per day, is likely to remain a common practice due to the increase in access to piped water in low- and middle-income countries and the many factors that threaten drinking water resources and infrastructure. IWS has been shown to degrade microbial water quality and lead to around 4.52 million cases of diarrhea each year. Understanding how unique features of IWS impact water microbiomes can help better characterize the risks of IWS and provide insight into strategies to protect water quality in IWS. Nelson’s lab group has investigated the effects of key features of IWS (i.e., drained periods, stagnation, and first flush events.) on drinking water microbial communities by integrating both field and laboratory approaches.