Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three professors from the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) have been selected as the directors of newly announced research centers at the University, where they will continue to make tangible impacts in research and grow the representation of women in STEM leadership. 

Zoubeida Ounaies, professor and associate head for administration in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mary Frecker, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, and Jacqueline O’Connor, associate professor of mechanical engineering, have all been tapped to lead the multidisciplinary units. 

“These new roles recognize the professors’ outstanding technical research and leadership skills in the ME department and give them a platform to impact the broader University community,” Karen Thole, distinguished professor and mechanical engineering department head, said. “Looking to the future, I am also confident the contributions of these three directors will inspire and support the next generation of women and underrepresented groups in engineering.” 

The centers were established to elevate the University’s visibility in critical areas, facilitate interdisciplinary connections and spur new avenues of cutting-edge research. 

“An exciting thing about this is that you have three women leading three extremely different centers,” O’Connor said. “While we all study unique topics, we all call the Department of Mechanical Engineering home.” 

Imagining and building new materials

Ounaies has been named the inaugural director of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems.

Established in July 2019, this strategic research and education partnership between Penn State and the University of Freiburg in Germany will advance the development of a new class of engineered living materials with potential applications in sustainable infrastructure, new robotics technologies, electronics, medical care and more.

With expertise in smart materials and nanocomposites, Ounaies is a recognized researcher who leads the Electroactive Materials Characterization Laboratory, an experimental research facility dedicated to advancing the application of functional materials in sensing, actuation and energy harvesting. Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded her a $1.7 million grant to conduct fundamental research into a new class of soft responsive materials and a $500,000 grant to investigate the development of a universal 3D printer.

Enhancing human health through science and engineering

Frecker will lead the Center for Biodevices, a collaborative unit aimed at initiating and supporting research in the area and facilitating impactful collaborations among Penn State’s College of Engineering, College of Medicine, Eberly College of Science, College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.  

In the Center for Biodevices, Frecker plans to expedite research discoveries that could improve human and animal health, such as implantable, surgical and wearable devices. These kinds of devices are already under development, including a flexible surgical probe that can help treat pancreatic cancer developed by Brad Hanks, a graduate student in Frecker’s research group.   

“The objectives of the new center are to advance research related to biodevices, educate the next generation and spread the word about biodevices and the exciting research and educational opportunities at Penn State,” Frecker said.  

Fueling the future of energy

O’Connor will lead the Center for Gas Turbine Research, Education, and Outreach.  

Gas turbines play a critical role in energy production, with an estimated one-third of the United States’ power being produced by these engines every year. 

Historically, Penn State has demonstrated strengths in both the breadth and depth of research activities advancing gas turbines, including fields of turbomachinery, combustion, manufacturing, materials, acoustics and controls. 

The creation of the Center for Gas Turbine Research, Education, and Outreach provides an enhanced pathway for visibility and collaboration. These cumulative efforts will also help support Penn State’s Energy 2100 initiative by providing technical expertise to help inform industry leaders and policy makers on the importance of gas turbine technologies. 

O’Connor said, “Through this center’s work, when people in industry and at other academic institutions think gas turbines, they’ll think of Penn State.”

While the professors said that directing their respective centers will be a rewarding professional journey, they hope their new positions will provide additional visibility and empowerment to others following in their footsteps.  

“I benefited from having generous mentors when I was starting out as an engineer, so I know the important role mentoring plays in attracting and retaining the next generation of talented researchers, especially women and those from marginalized groups,” Ounaies said.

Frecker echoed that sentiment and said, “For women in STEM fields, we may not have a lot of role models to look to. On top of that, being in a leadership position is even more unusual, so this is an exciting opportunity.”