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Daniel Ong

Major: Chemistry & Biochemistry
Mentor:Jesse Zalatan, Department of Chemistry


Current research project: Directed Evolution of Non-Heme Iron(II)/2-Oxoglutarate Dependent Enzymes for Non-Native C-H Functionalization of Amines

Daniel Ong is a fourth-year student at the University of Washington double majoring in Chemistry and Biochemistry. Daniel’s research interests lie at the intersection of chemistry and biology. Currently, he works in the Zalatan lab at the Department of Chemistry where he is engineering metalloenzymes for non-native C-H functionalization activity by using directed evolution. Previously, he did research in the Wills lab at the Department of Biochemistry where he investigated the metabolic reprogramming that is required for complex tissue regeneration in Xenopus tropicalis. In addition to being a URL, Daniel is a FIG Leader for Fall 2022 and a working-group member of Promoting Chemistry Undergraduate Research Equity (ProCURE). Looking ahead, he intends to pursue a career in research and tackle challenging problems facing human health. Outside of the lab and the classroom, you may find Daniel running on the Burke-Gilman trail, reading a book or graphic novel in his favorite cafe, or attempting improv on the cello.


Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
There is a growing demand to create complex organic molecules for the production of pharmaceuticals and other high-value chemicals. Enzymes offer a more sustainable means to perform highly selective chemical transformations that are otherwise difficult to achieve using synthetic chemistry. However, it is still a challenge to use enzymes to transform simple, non-biological building blocks for the construction of complex molecules such as pharmaceuticals. Non-heme iron(II)/2-oxoglutarate (Fe(II)/2OG) dependent hydroxylases are part of a superfamily of enzymes that catalyze a wide array of reactions via C-H functionalization, the transformation of a C-H bond to a C-X bond where X can be an element other than hydrogen. Hydroxylases specifically catalyze the transformation of a C-H bond to a C-OH bond. The goal of my project in the Zalatan lab is to engineer new-to-nature Fe(II)/2OGs by directed evolution to hydroxylate a wide range of amine substrates. My research can ultimately help to advance the reach of biosynthesis for the sustainable production of therapeutics and other complex chemicals.



When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
I applied for an undergraduate research position in the Wills lab at the Department of Biochemistry at the end of winter quarter during my second year at UW. I was eager to get involved in research as a way to deeply explore the potential fields I am interested in and be a part of investigating, discovering, or making something new. The COVID-19 pandemic made it especially difficult at the time to get wet lab experience. The research position in the Wills lab gave me the opportunity to start remote work doing data analysis and literature review before transitioning to wet lab work in the summer. Overall, my first research experience in the Wills lab helped me begin to grow as both a researcher who is resilient in the face of setbacks and a science communicator who engages broader audiences.


What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
My first piece of advice is just to say that you can do research! While you may have not completed many courses yet or may not have previous relevant experience, do not let this deter you from research! You will pick up the necessary skills and knowledge as you do research. My second piece of advice is to make sure to not put research before your personal well-being. Look for groups with faculty and mentors that are supportive of you as a person and where you can feel comfortable doing research. You can even directly ask graduate students about the group culture. If you have concerns about finances, ask if the group can pay you, offer work-study positions, or help you apply for research scholarships such as the Mary Gates Research Scholarship.