Building your career: Q&A with Jo Danko

Jo Danko
Joseph Danko, P.E.

Joseph Danko (M.S. ChemE, 1985) has more than 30 years of experience in consulting, engineering, design, construction management, and operations. He is currently the managing director of city solutions for CH2M (now Jacobs). In this role, he leads development and implementation of projects and programs in resilience, urban development, smart cities, and mobility for cities and communities around the world.  In 2007, he was inducted into the Oregon State University College of Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Engineers.

What are you most proud of in your career as an engineer?

Answer: Making the world a better place through the projects and programs that I have been able to participate in (hazardous waste cleanup, industrial wastewater treatment systems, major site regeneration projects, and large events like Qatar World 2022 World Cup where we developed breakthrough worker welfare standards). Leading the integration of sustainability in planning, engineering and constructing projects.

Q: What do you love best about what you do?

A: Working on projects that make people’s lives better: “Engineering and Meaningfulness.” Trying to integrate social values into all of our infrastructure projects. For example, workforce development to employ the currently underemployed, or unemployed, community members in the communities where we are implementing projects and programs.

Q: What do you most look forward to?

A: From a professional perspective, continuing to develop and implement projects focused on equity, sustainability, and resiliency. We are now integrating real-time data analysis and the IoT with our water and transportation infrastructure to improve safety, reduce non-revenue water losses, break the digital divide, reduce congestion, and increase workforce development. There is no limit to the potential positive impacts engineers can have on improving the environment and enhancing the lives of all people.

Q: Looking back on your time here at Oregon State, what did you do here that has best served you in your professional life?

A: The combined chemical engineering and environmental engineering M.S. degree was a game-changer. It provided such a strong foundation/platform for the engineering work at CH2M Hill. I also connected with colleagues from CH2M Hill during my graduate program. The networking was a key door-opener for me.

Q: What is the best advice you could give to a student just starting out with an engineering degree from Oregon State?

A: Enjoy every phase of your career. It is critical in the early years to immerse yourself in “Technical Implementation in the Real World.” Embrace learning how to plan, design, build, and operate systems. This will provide the foundation for you to become a future technical leader, project manager or business manager.

Cory Simon: Interesting things are everywhere

Cory Simon in his office
Cory Simon is interested in how mathematical abstractions at molecular scales can reveal insights into the behavior of materials.

Cory Simon, assistant professor of chemical engineering, says his approach to teaching is informed by his belief that even the simplest of things can be interesting once you understand them.

“I would much rather think about rubber bands than watch sports,” Simon said. Richard Feynman described rubber as molecular spaghetti. With this molecular picture, you can show through statistical thermodynamics why the tension increases when you heat a rubber band. It’s fascinating.

Like Feynman, the Nobel physicist and consummate professor, Simon is possessed with a vibrant curiosity. Simon says he hopes to instill that same enthusiasm and excitement in his students.

“I want to convey that, in contrast to stereotypes, engineering isn’t a dry or boring subject.” he said. In addition to intellectual entertainment, chemical engineering is an incredibly useful way of thinking that can be used to dramatically improve human welfare.”

Simon is particularly interested in how mathematical abstractions at molecular scales can reveal insights into the behavior of materials. His doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, involved mathematical and computational modeling of metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, a novel class of solid materials with some very useful properties. 

The crystal structure of a metal-organic framework called HKUST-1 reveals nano-sized pores that can hold gas molecules in place, like eggs in a carton.

MOFs combine metal ions or clusters with organic linking molecules to form thin-walled molecular lattices with nano-sized pores. Their structure creates a huge surface area enfolded into a tiny volume, enabling MOFs to adsorb large quantities of gas. This property lends MOFs applications for gas storage and separations. Simon has studied MOFs for their ability to store natural gas onboard vehicles for fuel and capture radioactive gases from used nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities.

An especially exciting feature of MOFs is their modular chemistry,” Simon said. As designer materials, we can judiciously change the molecular building blocks to synthesize a predetermined MOF structure and target a specific gas molecule. There are millions of different possibilities.” In his research, Simon employs molecular models and simulations to sift through the many possible MOFs and predict which are best for adsorbing different gases.

Diagram showing MOF construction
Metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, assemble from molecular building blocks, like Tinker Toys.

MOFs get even more interesting when you throw dynamic parts, such as rotating ligands and flexible lattices, into the mix. Part of Simon’s work is in developing simplified models to describe the statistical thermodynamics of how these flexible and dynamic parts interact with gas molecules.

His enthusiasm for MOFs notwithstanding, Simon’s expertise and skills as a theoretician have broad applicability throughout the field of chemical engineering. So he doesn’t feel bound by any particular area of inquiry as he develops his own research program at Oregon State, at least not at this stage in his career.

“I’ve spent stints working in polymers, mathematical biology, computational neuroscience, materials science, and genomics,” Simon said. I even spent a term working as a data scientist at Stitch Fix, a clothing company in San Francisco. As long as mathematics and computer programming are involved, I’m happy.”

His current projects provide a glimpse into the eclectic nature of his interests.

First, he’s working on a physics-based model to explain the formation and persistence of fairy circles, the mysterious, round patches of barren earth sprinkled throughout the grasslands of Australia and Africa. The circles form a regular pattern, and they shrink and expand depending on how much it rains. Various causes have been suggested for their appearance, including termites and plant toxins. But the problem is still shrouded in uncertainty.

Second, he’s working in collaboration with the Altius Institute of Biomedical Sciences, where he was a fellow in 2017, on developing machine-learning models to make sense of high-throughput genomic assays.

With such models, we can extract biological insights from large and noisy genomics data sets,” Simon said. A fundamental understanding of gene regulation will lead to cures for developmental disorders, treatments for cancer, and increases in longevity.”

With such a diverse assortment of intellectual appetites, Simon says he has to be careful to pace himself. He offers the following quote from Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR pioneer and professor of chemistry at Berkeley, describing two different types of scientist:

“One is the type who dives very deeply into one topic for their whole career and they know it better than anybody else in the world. Then there’s the other … where it’s like you’re at a buffet table and you see an interesting thing here and do it for a while, and that connects you to another interesting thing and you take a bit of that.”

In that context, Simon says, he sees himself at a buffet.

Read more about Cory Simon’s work on his website, The Simon Research Ensemble.

Elain Fu: Paper-based devices to advance precision health

Elain Fu in laboratory
Elain Fu, assistant professor of bioengineering, wants to use paper-based devices to help make health care more accessible.

Elain Fu says her passion for research is fueled by a desire to create devices that can have a real impact on global health care delivery.

“I’m very motivated by applications,” said Fu, assistant professor of bioengineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. “I love to do quantitative science, and to design devices. But the main satisfaction I get from my work is that it’s driven by biomedically relevant problems.”

With a background in physics and bioengineering and expertise in building microfluidic sensors, Fu’s current research focus is on creating inexpensive, paper-based tools for diagnosing and monitoring a variety of different health conditions. Such devices are a natural fit for what are known as “low-resource environments” – rural communities in the developing world, battlefields, and other remote locations where medical facilities and personnel aren’t always available. But the devices have the potential for a variety of applications in a wide range of environments.

“The area where I have the most experience is human disease diagnosis,” Fu said. “But there are a lot of different application domains – such as veterinary medicine, environmental monitoring, and military situations – where you might need a sensor that you can use in a setting that doesn’t have trained operators, laboratory facilities, or even electricity. By building the capability of these devices within a more general platform, the hope is that the devices will be useful for many different applications.”

One popular format for a paper-based microfluidic device is the lateral-flow test, its best-known implementation being the home pregnancy test that has been in use for decades. This type of device uses capillary action to move a liquid sample through a strip of porous medium, where it can react with certain chemicals, fixed into designated zones along the strip, to display a visible result.

“The format has many strengths for low-resource settings, so it is used around the world for diagnosing infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever,” Fu said. “The problem is that this type of test is not always sensitive enough or precise enough for a given application. So a lot of work is being done in the paper microfluidics community to take the best aspects of the lateral-flow test and make even better tests.”

What constitutes a “better” test varies, depending on the application.  For example, in diagnosing malaria, a better test translates to a test with a lower limit of detection. So engineers can manipulate the fluids on the device, or the signaling molecules within them, to create a higher signal-to-noise ratio and improve performance.

Fu’s previous projects have included tests to detect influenza and malaria. One of her current projects, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Washington, aims to develop an early-detection HIV diagnostic for infants. Testing for HIV in newborns presents special challenges, Fu says, because maternal antibodies inherited in the womb can create interference.

“Those maternal antibodies are good for the infant whose immune system is still developing,” Fu said. “But they can create false positives. The test we’re developing has to have an extra component on the front end to pull out the maternal antibodies, so we have to do a little more work. We’re also pushing for higher sensitivity, because with a lower detection limit, you can hopefully diagnose and begin treatment earlier.”

Another application where paper-based microfluidics shows great promise is in-home monitoring of chronic health conditions. One example is phenylketonuria, or PKU, a genetic disorder in which the body is not able to properly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine.

“The idea is that people with PKU need to monitor their phenylalanine levels just like people with diabetes need to monitor their glucose levels,” Fu said. “But in the absence of any sort of easy test, they have to go to a clinic to get their blood drawn. Then maybe a week or two later, they get the results. That’s informative on some level, but it doesn’t provide the real-time feedback patients need to effectively change their therapy.”

So, a few years back, Fu embarked on a project to develop a test for phenylalanine monitoring in the home. With support from the National PKU Alliance, she and her students created a working prototype that performed well under lab conditions. But it’s a much higher bar to build something that can perform robustly in somebody’s home, with the patient operating it. Last September, the National Institutes of Health awarded funding to Fu and collaborators at the University of Pittsburgh and Oasis Diagnostics to try to move that device to the next level.

“What we’re trying to do is create a device for people with PKU, so they can take a drop of blood from a finger prick, put it in the device, and then within 10 minutes get their phenylalanine level.” Fu said. “This is where it gets exciting for me, moving from something where you can demonstrate that it works in the lab, to something that people can actually use in their own home.”

The drive to create a home-based phenylalanine test is just one example of a growing trend toward more personalized health care. Fu says this trend has the potential to empower individuals with a variety of different conditions, by providing them with tools for home-based testing and monitoring.

“Technology is moving out of centralized labs and hospitals and becoming more accessible to people for use at the point of care,” Fu said. “This trend can enable the practice of precision health in which differences between individuals can be taken into account in their healthcare. Having one number that you’ve averaged over the population to say what’s normal or not normal – that’s not really meaningful. But if patients could simply test themselves at appropriate times at home or wherever they happen to be, they would be able to map out exactly what is and is not normal for them.”

Fu says she’d ultimately like to see her devices progress far enough to where she can transfer her technology to an industry partner to produce the technology for use by the people who need it.

“What’s meaningful to me, and what drives my research, is the potential for helping people,” she said.