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David Ong, professor of Biochemistry, emeritus, dies at 71

Apr. 28, 2015, 10:14 AM

David E. Ong, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, emeritus, whose contributions to research in the area of vitamin A biochemistry were recognized worldwide, died April 25. He was 71.

David E. Ong, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, emeritus, was an avid gardener with a special interest in Bonsai plants.

“The passing of Dr. Ong is a tremendous loss to the Biochemistry Department and Vanderbilt University,” said John D. York, Ph.D., Natalie Overall Warren professor and chair of Biochemistry. “His enthusiasm, scholarship and gifted research contributions are etched in our memories. Our thoughts go out to his family during this difficult time.”

Dr. Ong was a native of Elkhart, Indiana, who received his undergraduate degree from Wabash College. While there, he received a Miles Laboratories scholarship to work part-time at their facility, which spurred his interest in biochemistry. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1970, and came to Vanderbilt later that year as a research associate and National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellow.

In 1974 he joined the laboratory of Frank Chytil, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry. Chytil’s laboratory had just discovered CRBP, a retinol (vitamin A) binding protein. Dr. Ong discovered the retinoic acid binding protein CRABP, which led to publications in Nature and in Science. Dr. Ong received his first NIH R01 grant in 1977 and his second in 1983. That same year, he and Chytil shared the Osborne and Mendel Award from the Nutrition Foundation.

In November of 1975, Dr. Ong was appointed to the faculty as a research assistant professor and, in 1981, was promoted to research associate professor. In 1984, influenced by Chytil and Leon Cunningham, Ph.D., then chair of Biochemistry, Dr. Ong was promoted to associate professor and, in 1987, to professor. He became an emeritus professor in 2008.

“The thing I remember most about Dave was his absolute dedication to training students on how to give quality presentations,” said Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. “He felt very strongly that learning how to communicate was as important as learning how to do research and the Biochemistry students certainly benefited from his dedication.”

“David was a congenial companion, knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects,” recalled his colleague and friend Conrad Wagner, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry. “His interests were far-ranging. When he found something that interested him he threw himself into it completely.”

Among those interests were music, especially the history of jazz; art (including charts and diagrams illustrating the functions of Vitamin A); gardening, including an interest in Bonsai plants; and games of all kinds, an interest which was most evident by the pinball machine at his house.

A memorial has been scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at Dr. Ong’s home at 216 Harpethwood Drive in Nashville. The family requests that no gifts or flowers be sent or brought. Friends are encouraged to attend and reminisce in celebration of Dr. Ong’s life.

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