By Juliana Palomino
Last August, a University of Kentucky doctoral student from small-town Louisiana traveled halfway around the world—alone—all for an organic chemical compound.
Dustin Savage, a third-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student, spent six days in Krakow, Poland. He attended DioXin 2018, an international conference with more than 500 professionals and researchers of environmental pollution and its remediation efforts, public policy and much more. Dustin even presented his own research at the accompanying International PCB Workshop.
Dustin works in the field of environmental remediation by examining water sources for organic contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These can cause numerous health issues.
“PCBs have been linked to many problems, including cancer. The real problem, though, is that we don’t know how bad they are until people are affected by them,” says Dustin. “We’re trying to stop those different health concerns from ever occurring.”
He and his team are developing sensing systems that test water samples. They currently use test solutions for experimental verification, and eventually this could be used for swift testing of natural water samples.
“Right now, testing water samples is a cumbersome process with complicated equipment and standards,” Dustin explains. “The idea behind what I’m making is that it’s a simple powder. You can put it in a water sample and immediately see if it’s contaminated or not. This will be faster and reliable for laboratories and general use.”
In Poland, Dustin presented this work and received praise and valuable feedback. Though talking about his work is now second nature to him, nervousness still gripped him immediately beforehand.
“Even though I was nervous, my confidence was really boosted afterwards,” he says. “It reassured me of my ability to present the work I’m doing and make it applicable and useful to the world."
Prior to beginning his doctoral studies at UK, Dustin earned two bachelor of science degrees in chemical and nanosystems engineering from Louisiana Tech University. He had heard about groundbreaking research at UK from Zach Hilt, UK Gill Eminent professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, which prompted him to move to the Bluegrass.
Dustin plans to finish his Ph.D. in the next two to three years. He also hopes to attend next year’s conference in Tokyo, Japan.
“After spending time as a graduate student, I can now take in a wider breadth of knowledge that formerly I would have cast aside because it was so foreign to me,” he says. “My understanding of basic principles has been augmented substantially. I understand now how everything around us really comes down to chemistry.”