October 13, 2016
Barbara Sobko, left, and Karen Buckner October 13, 2016 | by Amy Bickers

Henry Kenneth “Ken” Dillon “was a scientist through and through,” said his wife, Anita Dillon.

But sometimes Dr. Dillon, a professor for 22 years in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UAB’s School of Public Health, would put his lab coat away for the evening. And then he was a dancer.

The couple met taking ballroom dancing lessons. Those first lessons led to a longer dance, the kind that takes a couple down the aisle and through years of parenting children – his son and her two daughters.

After Dr. Dillon passed away in 2004, the Dillon family established an endowed support fund for the H. Kenneth Dillon Environmental Health Sciences Teaching Laboratory. “Ken was always concerned with having enough money to buy the equipment students needed,” Mrs. Dillon said. “He wanted to keep the equipment up to date, and it was hard to find the money to fund those kinds of things.”

In the lab, Associate Professor Dr. Claudiu Lungu, Director of the Deep South Center for Occupational Health and Safety, works with students to develop new and better respirators. “The design for respiratory protection was based on a Los Alamos National Laboratory study in the ‘50s,” Dr. Lungu said. “As a result of that, everyone is using three sizes: small, medium, and large. Now we have many more women, a much more racially diverse workforce, but we have the same three types of respirators.”

Dr. Lungu and his students use 3D technology to design respiratory masks to fit better, and are designing a fabric-like material to filter out dangerous particulate matter. “With part of Anita’s gift, we got a spectrometer, which can measure particulate matter in the range of 10 nanometers up to 10,000 micrometers,” Dr. Lungu said. “The smaller the particles, the lower they go in the respiratory tract. They can end up not only in the lungs but also in the heart and in the brain.”

Dr. Lungu and his students will use the spectrometer to measure particulates to which firefighters are exposed. They will collect measurements before and after prescribed burns in a set environment. “Based on that, we can design better respirators and better safety programs for them,” he said.

Since 2009, eight doctoral students have received the H. Kenneth Dillon Endowed Scholarship, funded by family, alumni and friends. “Ken loved his students,” Mrs. Dillon said. “He was a great teacher. It’s hard for a student to work and do research and schooling. I thought the scholarship would help those students be fully able to do the research they need to do.”

When she told the story of meeting her husband in the ballroom dancing class, Mrs. Dillon said, “I haven’t danced since.” And yet, it is clear that their graceful partnership continues.

To support UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences: Mona L. McCarty, 205.934.7799; mmccarty@uab.edu.