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ELC alum’s research could save breath

Kevin Dong, ELC ’17, has forged new streams in diatom research

January 6, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

Diatoms are vital to life on earth and don't get the attention they deserve, Kevin Dong said. The Estherville Lincoln Central alum and University of Iowa undergraduate spent last summer almost entirely in the lab. "My advisor was not that happy with me because we're not supposed to eat in the lab, but I was really focused," Dong said.

For those with less ecological science knowledge than Dong, the first question may be: "What is a diatom?"

Breathe in. Breathe out. Dong said diatoms are responsible for up to 40 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

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According to, we breathe the oxygen that diatoms release. Specifically, Dong said, they are "microscopic algae, but their cell walls are made of silica. They live in a glass house."

Dong said this makes them attractive to look at. The silica walls measuring one to 100 microns in width make them excellent carriers for the delivery of drugs to the body. There's a rumor going around that Kevin Dong could be curing cancer. Dong said that statement goes too far, but diatoms could be used as a capsule to deliver chemotherapy drugs to targeted parts of the body.

They aren't one species. Researchers estimate there are 20,000 to 2 million species of the algae, and new species are discovered each year.

The qualities of diatoms make them excellent for filtration of water and beer and they serve as a carbon pump, turning atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into organic carbon.

Dong, a pharmaceutical sciences major at the University of Iowa who's applying to pharmacy school this summer, studied diatoms because in addition to creating and releasing oxygen, diatoms indicate by their tolerances and changes, the quality of the water in which they're living, and scientists can determine this by looking at them through a microscope and without the need for expensive chemical testing.

"Diatoms eliminate the need for chemical tests because the diatom response will indicate the chemical composition of the water," Dong said.

This is how Dong started studying diatoms. As a rising sophomore at ELC, Dong took a class at Lakeside Laboratory in Okoboji.

"I really enjoyed it. I was younger than most people who took the class, and they had more experience with research than I did, but I understood it pretty well, and I came back to take the class a second time," Dong said.

In the summer of 2017, Dr. Sylvia Lee, biologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and Kerry Howard, PhD, of the University of Nevada-Reno asked Dong to come on board as a teaching assistant.

"Lakeside Laboratory gave me a great jumping off point to propel me to the opportunities I'm getting now," Dong said.

One of these opportunities was conducting original research on diatoms last summer at the Timberlake Biological Field Station in Texas, through Tarleton State University. Dong's supervisor was Dr. Victoria Chaibi, associate professor of biological sciences at Tarleton. Dr. Chaibi regularly offers research opportunities to students, and was co-author of the poster Dong presented to the National Science Foundation. Dr. Chaibi's ongoing research is Biodiversity and environmental optima of Colorado River diatoms at the Timberlake Biological Research Station.

Dong said the goal was to improve bioindicators in Texas. The bioindicator is the diatom: the algae used to measure the health of the water body.

The issue: unlike other areas, Texas had no initial data set from which Dong could measure changes. Dong had to create it.

"It was the first of its kind in that region," Dong said.

After collecting his baseline data, Dong spent time at the water and in the lab finding out how changes in the water quality affected the diatoms and ultimately what it means for us.

One application that covers the field and the pharmaceutical studies that take up most of Dong's year is determining how pharmaceutical waste in the water affects water quality for all species.

Dong's long days in the lab, starting as early as 8 a.m. and sometimes not leaving until after midnight, resulted in his acceptance to present his work to the National Science Foundation at the Research for Undergraduates Symposium in October.

The Symposium had a sort of American Idol esque series of elimination rounds. From 3,000 initial nominations, the crowd for Dong's area was narrowed to 20, then 10., then Dong and his cohort were the top 10 percent of the top 10 percent of all projects.

"They came from a wide range of schools, even the Ivy League and some of the best research universities in the country," Dong said.

In presenting to agents from the National Science Foundation, Dong managed to say, "I think I did pretty good."

The National Science Foundation, Dong said, is interested in hearing from the nation's top undergraduate scientists because many of them will be the graduate, doctoral and post doctoral researchers doing cutting-edge work in the next several years.

Dong said he began dreaming big during his high school years at ELC. Science teacher Kris Turner was one teacher Dong said particularly encouraged and inspired him.

Dong said Lee, Wu and Howard have been instrumental in his research.

"There are not many diatomists, and there is a lot to learn. Research continues, and there are a lot of kinks to work out," Dong said.

As Dong looks toward a fast track through completing his undergraduate work and going to pharmacy school, he hopes to open new knowledge streams in his work on diatoms.



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