Nazor swam the 21-mile-long English Channel.

JMU alumna Karah Nazor (’99) has always had a passion for science, but she found her career’s focus when JMU helped her discover the world of biotechnology. While at JMU, she was able to cultivate a love for marine biology because of the learning resources she was surrounded by, the faculty members who guided her and the students who shared the same interests.

Nazor graduated from JMU with a major in biology and a minor in gerontology. She was inspired by several faculty members at JMU, including math and biology professor Charles Ziegenfus, who taught ornithology at the time. Nazor thoroughly enjoyed his class, which focused on the study of birds. Ziegenfus said he was impressed by her attentiveness and interest.

“She was very responsive to everything,” Ziegenfus said. “She was always alert, always eager to learn, always had a pleasant smile.”

After graduating from JMU, Nazor earned a Ph.D. in gerontology at the University of Kentucky. She then traveled to San Francisco to conduct research on the molecular biology of prion disease for several years. It was also at this time that she began to train to swim the English Channel.

Nazor has been interested in aquatic sports since she swam competitively at seven years old. She was on the swim team while at JMU and learned to white water kayak through several UREC programs. While in San Francisco, she joined the South End Rowing Club, which includes rowing, swimming, handball and running, and she found herself surrounded by athletes training to swim the English Channel. Nazor found herself intrigued by the challenge and decided to commit to it. 

After training for two years, she completed the approximately 21-mile-long swim from England to France in 2008 in 12 hours and 28 minutes. She said she considers herself thankful for the encouragement that her family was able to give her throughout the training process.

“It’s like a meditation when you get to swim for that long,” Nazor said. “In a way, it’s like I’ve been building up for something like that my whole life. I was just grateful to have the opportunity and support to be able to do something like that.”

After researching for 11 years, Nazor decided to make the switch to teaching to become better connected with her community and engage youth in biological research projects. She currently teaches science research, general biology, marine biology, molecular biology and environmental science at McCallie High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, her hometown.  Nazor especially enjoys spawning ctenophores, a type of jellyfish that doesn’t sting, in the labs alongside students.

Nazor and Ziegenfus still keep in touch, and Ziegenfus greatly appreciates her switch to teaching. In 2015, he recommended Nazor as a speaker for the biology department’s annual BioSymposium, and she spoke to attendees about her career in teaching. 

“She thought it was time to give her life to teaching people rather than doing research, which is an admirable trait because a lot of people want to stay in the lab all the time,” Ziegenfus said. “It’s just, I’m just so proud of her as she has represented JMU and the biology department.”

Each summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides the opportunity for teachers to take part in hands-on research with world-renowned scientists through its Teacher at Sea program. This past summer, Nazor spent 10 days on the “Reuben Lasker” ship in the Pacific Ocean as a participant in the program.

Nazor applied for the program in November 2018 and was notified of her acceptance in March. Shortly after she stepped onto the boat, she was surprised at the companionship she experienced with her five fellow researchers.

“It felt like we were having a slumber party on a boat; we just got along so well,” Nazor said. “It was really fun to have that type of camaraderie on the boat.”

The starting focus of the group’s research on the boat was to study populations of rockfish. For several years, scientists have been unable to find sustainable populations of juvenile rockfish, which Nazor said is concerning because it could potentially lead to species endangerment. However, because they couldn’t find many rockfish, the research emphasis shifted to a population of fish called myctophids. Although these fish aren’t widely known, they make up about 65% of all deep-sea fish biomass in the ocean, according to the nonprofit organization Oceana.

NOAA affiliate Ilysa Iglesias said she appreciates the various perspectives and backgrounds that the program brings together. She enjoyed Nazor’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, especially during the late nights and early mornings in the course of the expedition.

“Karah was an absolute delight to have aboard,” Iglesias said. “Having someone like Karah who was excited about everything kind of relighted my excitement. She has a contagious excitement that I think spread throughout the whole ship.”

Nazor currently wants to put a focus on her teaching while maintaining her swimming hobby. As for her future, she said she’s thinking about possibly starting a family of her own.

“I like to be learning something new all the time, so I guess you could say I’m a lifelong learner,” Nazor said. “I want to continue educating myself and acquiring new skills and new techniques to do research and to occupy my own intellectual curiosity or to satisfy that.”

Contact Kamryn Koch at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.