Prof. Mary Frecker works to design tools and structures that are smaller, smarter, or more efficient than anything we have today. One element of Frecker's work focuses on designing and fabricating miniaturized cutting, grabbing, and suturing tools. Using micro-sized tools, surgeons can work through smaller incisions and do less collateral damage. The multifunctional design means that one tool can do the jobs that now require multiple tools that need to be removed and inserted during surgery, significantly shortening the time spent in the operating room. Once the Frecker group produces a proof-of-concept, they work with extensive computer models to find the best possible designs for the job. Once they find the optimal solution, they make the design a reality — producing surgical tools, morphing aircraft wings, or stress-resistant cellular walls.
When exploring the boundaries of new tools and structures, conventional manufacturing techniques are often insufficient, meaning the Frecker group must develop new techniques. For example, when they found that making surgical instruments thinner than a human hair couldn't be done using conventional hinges and pin joints, they turned to Prof. James Adair, a materials scientist at Penn State, to make tools from ceramic nanoparticles. Adapting an ancient technique known as the lost wax method, they designed micrometer-scale surgical tools that were biocompatible, sterilizable, and strong. Frecker is the PI on an NSF project to develop methods to design active origami structures to be used for applications in minimally invasive surgery, adaptive aircraft structures, reconfigurable robots and deployable space structures. Frecker's group works in collaboration with Prof. Alan Snyder at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and other professors to help design heart-assist pumps by modeling and selecting electroactive polymers.