On January 27, Dr. Kara Nelson spent a full day of meetings and talks and lunches with both students and faculty at the University of Oklahoma. She awed students with her personal account of how her current career evolved in response to various stimuli - intellectual, geographic, and romantic! Kara is an Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D., 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 to maximize its environmental benefits. She currently conducts research in the United States, Mexico, Ghana, India, and Bolivia.
Billions of people in the developing world rely on drinking water sources that are periodically contaminated with pathogens. Many water sources that are considered “improved” according to the definition used to measure progress toward the Millennium Development Goals do not actually meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for safe drinking water. Approaches to prevent contamination of drinking water supplies, and to provide reliable treatment of contaminated supplies, are urgently needed.
In her talk, Dr. Nelson discussed two dramatically different approaches for providing microbiologically safe drinking water. The first approach relies on the municipal utility to treat the water and distribute it through a piped network. This approach is the norm in cities throughout the world, but in most developing country cities the water is not supplied continuously. Unfortunately, intermittent supply leaves the water pipes vulnerable to contamination during periods of low or negative pressure; in addition, households must invest in additional infrastructure, such as storage containers and pumps. Results from an ongoing research project in Hubli-Dharwad, India, were shown comparing the contamination in a water system that is supplied intermittently with one that is supplied continuously.
The second approach to providing microbiologically safe drinking water is for individuals to treat their water themselves. Solar Disinfection (SODIS) is one common option for household water treatment. Dr. Nelson presented results from research conducted in Bolivia investigating how SODIS works, as well as recommendations for how to make treatment more effective.
In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Nelson is the faculty leader of the Research Thrust Area on Safe Water and Sanitation at the Berkeley Water Center, as well as the lead PI on a large multidisciplinary Safe Water and Sanitation Initiative funded through the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Dr. Nelson received the PECASE award in 2004.