The University of Iowa

Dustin May

Dustin May


Dustin May, a native of Cedar Rapids, is a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Human Toxicology. His dissertation is focusing on health effects of chronic exposure to low level natural radiation

While a large portion of the population in Iowa derive their drinking water from these privately-owned sources, these wells remain unregulated and are not tested for radioactivity.

In June 2015, May received a $40,000 research grant from the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contaminants to study water quality for private wells in the state of Iowa.

Q: Why did you pursue graduate school / become a researcher?

A: After graduating with my B.S. in chemistry from the University of Iowa in 2006, I started working at the State Hygienic Laboratory, the state of Iowa’s public health laboratory. Through my work at the lab, I ended up working in the Radiochemistry Department, which I now manage. As a result of this work, I met UI Associate Professor Michael Schultz, now my graduate advisor, and he convinced me to pursue my Ph.D. I chose the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Human Toxicology due to its great flexibility and focus on human health. I had long considered going back to school and when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t pass it up.

Q: Describe your research in non-expert language?

A: My research is focused on naturally occurring radioactivity in ground-derived drinking water. This is an important source of exposure to radioactivity that can lead to an increased risk of cancer in the general population. Certain contributors to radioactivity in public drinking water are federally regulated, but some less well understood contributors, especially polonium-210, are not. These less well understood contributors can have a potentially higher impact on human health than the regulated chemical substance. We are especially interested in private drinking water wells, as a large portion of the population in the state of Iowa derive their drinking water from these privately owned sources; these wells are entirely unregulated and not tested for radioactivity. This could be a significant route of exposure to the public, and we hope to find out just how significant.

Q: What impact has your work had on the field/world? What impact do you hope to have on your field/world?

A: So far, my work, in collaboration with numerous other researchers, has helped to greatly expand the understanding of wastes generated by unconventional drilling. It is important to understand the composition and behavior of these wastes as they can have a direct impact on the environment and human health. Going forward, I hope to help determine whether less well understood contributors to radioactivity in ground-derived drinking water pose a serious risk to human health in Iowa. This topic has not been studied as in depth as I believe it should be. Through my continuing work, I hope to fill this gap in knowledge, in a way that can help protect the health of Iowans.

Q: What resources have influenced or supported your academic goals?

A: There have been a number of organizations on the UI campus that have helped support my graduate work. The State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) has been extraordinarily supportive in allowing me to pursue my Ph.D. while still working full time and managing our Radiochemistry Department. The Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) has be wonderfully supportive, providing funding in cooperation with SHL, to perform a private well pilot study. Lastly, the UI Employee Tuition Assistance Program has been immensely helpful, providing funding to help pay for required coursework.

Q: Do you have any role models, mentors, or inspirational people who have encouraged you to pursue your work?

A: A number of great people have helped me along the way. My mentor, Dr. Schultz, has been very supportive and is the main reason why I decided to go back to school after being in the workforce for 10 years. Additionally, recent UI graduate Dr. Andrew Nelson, also a mentee of Dr. Schultz, has helped encourage me a great deal; we have worked closely on a number of research projects involving hydraulic fracturing liquid and solid wastes. I learned a great deal from Dr. Nelson and he is still someone I bounce ideas off of regularly. Marinea Mehrhoff, the retired former supervisor of the SHL Radiochemistry Department, also provided invaluable training and support. Mrs. Mehrhoff was a UI employee for over 30 years and took me under her wing at SHL. She groomed me as her replacement and was incredibly supportive in my decision to pursue my graduate work. Without each of these wonderful people, among many others, I don’t think I could have been as successful as I have been.

Q: How has your graduate experience shaped your career goals?

A: Working in academic research as part of my graduate education has caused me to think more about how I can expand the Radiochemistry Department at SHL. I hope to pursue further grant opportunities to expand the research foot print of SHL. Working on my projects has given me a number of ideas I would like to pursue in the future. I believe that I can make SHL a force in environmental radiochemistry research going forward.

Q: If you could go back to a time at the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?

A: If I could give one piece of advice to myself, it would be relax! It is really easy to get stressed out with deadlines, coursework, work responsibilities, research, and writing. You can only do so much and worrying yourself sick doesn’t do anyone any good. The work will get done and finding the right work/life balance is incredibly important. Get out and have fun, too!

Human Toxicology