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.

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