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Biological Sciences Division
Staff Awards & Honors

February 2017

Breathing Easy, Rick Corley Retires

Rick Corley in his office on his last day at PNNL.

After nearly 21 years at PNNL, toxicologist Rick Corley, a Laboratory Fellow, drove through the snow this week (on January 31, 2017) to hand in his badge. He had arrived on July 1, 1996 from Dow Chemical as a "strategic hire," he said - part of an effort in those days to diversify the Lab's research portfolio.

Corley is setting up an LCC as a consultant, continuing his specialty (three dimensional models of the respiratory system) with colleagues at PNNL, Oregon State University, and elsewhere. A move to Boise, Idaho is likely, he said, where there is a university, an airport, and - not least - good friends and good fishing.

Corley, a reserved man who reserves animation for the science of breathing, is a widely recognized expert on oral, dermal, and inhalation toxicology, as well as on three dimensional computational fluid-dynamic models of the respiratory system.

The point of those models is to improve risk assessment for humans, including for people challenged by respiratory diseases, he said, and to improve our understanding of respiratory systems from the organ and tissue down to the functional molecule.

"We're trying to develop a more explicit model of the respiratory system," said Corley of ongoing collaborations that started at PNNL in the late 1990s. They later matured into a 13-year National Institutes of Health project that ended last year. It was so big and consequential that Corley called it PNNL's "moon shot" during a national race for such models. "In the end, we were one of the better groups."

During that period, the research team leveraged Lab-wide computational expertise and other capabilities. They went from respiratory models that took months or years to develop to those that were ready "in hours or days," he said. "For a while there, we were way out." Within a decade, predicted Corley, there will be not only a full blown model of human respiration, but there will be customized models for single individuals to speed diagnostics and treatment. (He is part of several recent multi-university proposals aimed at this breakthrough.)

Modeling respiration requires a lot of computational power and slick new algorithms in order to image datasets and simulate how air moves in real time. Such research so means coping with the differences in airflow mechanics and anatomy between humans and laboratory animals. For one, many animals used in such research are "obligate nose breathers." Humans are more respiration-versatile (and complicated). They breathe with their mouths too.

By his last day in the office, Corley had carefully packed in cartons a few detailed casts and models of both human and rabbit nasal systems. (Rabbits are commonly used in tests of inhalation toxicology, olfaction, and drug delivery.) Even to a lay person, the anatomical details seem dramatically different. For one thing, humans possess only limited respiration terrain for sensing odors.

As a kind of accidental sendoff in mid-January, Corley received the 2016 PANWAT Toxicology Achievement Award. The honor - for scholarship, leadership, and service to the field - is awarded annually by the Pacific Northwest Association of Toxicologists.

The award is well deserved on every front, said PNNL toxicologist Brian Thrall, "Rick did a lot to build up our capabilities in modeling and in quantifying human exposures," he said, "whether they be from chemicals or particles or from other sources." Thrall offered one example: an impactful program Corley led at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute on an advanced lung model.

The award will be officially conferred in March at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, and comes with an invitation to present a plenary lecture.

In another kind of sendoff, Corley co-authored a late-January paper published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Global long-range transport and lung cancer risk from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons shielded by coatings of organic aerosol," with PNNL Earth systems analyst ManishKumar Shrivastava as lead author, represents a new direction in research collaboration, said Corley, bringing the world of respiration biology into fruitful synchronicity with atmospheric research. "It is good science," he added, "and fit in with the (our respiratory) modeling."

Interdisciplinary science - "Easy to say, hard to do," Corley said - is a career-long passion. "He had a big impact on junior staff," said Thrall of his friend as a mentor, "and he led creative interdisciplinary teams." Corley routinely brought together experts in applied mathematics, magnetic resonance imaging, CT scanning, and bioinformatics.

One modeling project unfolded over 15 years, involved more than 30 researchers, drew in $20 million in funding, and twice as much in spin-off research. "The biggest part of it was working with really interdisciplinary teams towards a common goal," said Corley, even though "at first, there was a language barrier."

 During his Ph.D. studies, Corley worked with William Buck at the University of Illinois on fugal toxicology, including a T-2 mycotoxin nicknamed "yellow rain" that was famous in the mid-1970s for its purported wartime uses.

He went to Dow as a post-doc to study exposure rates in agricultural chemicals. He stayed just over a decade, and run his own lab. Corley worked with Richard Reitz, taking away from that relationship at Dow a legacy expertise in a mathematical modeling technique called physiologically based pharmacokinetic modeling. "I still do that today," he said.

At PNNL, and now an independent researcher, Corley is interested in modeling the full chain of activity involved in human respiration, from organ, to tissue, to cell, and on down to individual molecule.

In 2014, he was named one of the lead researchers in a $4.5 million, five-year grant from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to map the molecular components of normal lung development during late term and early childhood. (Now in charge at PNNL is Charles Ansong, a senior research scientist with the Integrative Omics group.)

The grant is part of a multi-institution effort called LungMAP, aimed at developing a molecular atlas of the developing human lung. At PNNL, that requires generating data from technologies that analyze the function of molecules. That means linking molecular information to the developing lung by looking at genes, proteins, lipids, and metabolites.

LungMAP is probing, ambitious, interdisciplinary, and eclectic. It represents the kind of respiratory science and collaboration Corley likes. "Cells don't work in isolation," he said, by way of illustration, and as if he were talking about scientists. "They have neighbors. They communicate."

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