Kara Prior: For the Love of Discovery
Kara Prior sat on the edge of her chair in a classroom in Nanjing, straining to catch every word the instructor uttered in Chinese. Although she had come to China with relatively strong language skills, taking classes in Chinese was proving to be a real challenge. Prior, who was used to being a good student and understanding every word her teachers said, found herself challenged in a way she had never expected.
Looking back now, Prior says, “So much was over my head, especially at first!”
As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, Prior had earned a BS in international studies and environmental sciences while working for the Iowa Flood Center, building electronic stream sensors. After graduation, Prior spent a year studying in China through a program sponsored by Nanjing University and Johns Hopkins University. “That was definitely the hardest year of my education,” Prior says. She learned a lot about herself, as well as the economics, politics, law, and Chinese studies that were taught in the classroom.
A Modeling Challenge
Prior is now a graduate student in the earth and environmental sciences program, working with IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Adam Ward on a project to model water, nitrogen, and carbon as they move through the environment. It’s an interesting challenge, Prior says, because she has no programming background. She recently completed a set of preliminary models, simulating several crop types in the nearby Clear Creek watershed to quantify changes in runoff, infiltration, and nitrogen pollution. Once she confirms that the model is working properly, she will drive the model with different weather and land management variables to test a number of “what-if” scenarios, including flood-after-drought, which played out in Eastern Iowa in 2012–13, leading to record in-stream levels of nitrogen.
The World is a Classroom
Prior never lost the love of discovery that she felt as a young child. The Ames, Iowa, native was home schooled by her mother through age 12. “I credit that with a lot of my excitement about learning,” Prior says. “It allowed me to get to know my own mind.” Since she and her brother weren’t tied down to a school or classroom, they spent lots of time outdoors, exploring the natural world.
Prior has taken inspiration from her mother, who worked exceptionally hard after becoming a single parent at midlife to provide for her family and get an education. With two children to raise, she went back to college while working fulltime, eventually earning two master’s degrees. Today, Prior’s mom is an applied anthropologist who works for the Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Use, Prevention and Control Unit, focusing on statewide tobacco control and the elimination of health disparities.
A Global View
Prior’s study-abroad experience in China left her even more excited about international education, and with new respect for international students who study at the University of Iowa. After her year in China, Prior taught English in South Korea for two years.
Prior is now working on a master’s degree, and may eventually take on a PhD. She hopes to study abroad again, and eventually to teach in some capacity. She’s excited to be connected with IIHR, Prior says, because of the institute’s interesting confluence of people and programs. She believes the things she’s learning now will be useful wherever she ends up.
“Managing nutrients and pollution is a challenge everywhere,” Prior says.