It’s not easy to make confusing mathematics topics understandable, let alone interesting, to non-mathematicians, but University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Ghrist has figured out the formula.

Ghrist, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, studies a branch of math called algebraic topology.

“Topology is based on the notion of proximity,” he says. “It answers questions like what’s its shape, how many holes does it have, what type of holes does it have? It’s intrinsically qualitative in nature. It’s not asking for distances between points.”

Despite how abstract it sounds, it’s a field of pure math with many applications, and Ghrist is at the forefront of several.