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Zoubeida Ounaies, professor and associate head for administration in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering Image: Penn State

Joint strategic partnership with University of Freiburg to design sustainable materials using biological and bioinspired principles.

To broaden applications of living materials, expand Penn State’s leadership in the engineering sciences on the international stage and grow partnerships with researchers and students around the world, Zoubeida Ounaies, professor and associate head for administration in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been named the inaugural director of the Penn State 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.

“We are so pleased Zoubeida Ounaies will take on this important leadership role as the first milestone on this topic in our longstanding partnership with the University of Freiburg. She not only has great technical expertise, but she is proven as an administrative leader, mentor and team organizer for interdisciplinary research,” said Clive Randall, director of the Materials Research Institute. “Zoubeida’s vision for what this center can accomplish is inspiring.”

The global partnership — co-sponsored at Penn State by the Materials Research Institute and the Institutes for Energy and the Environment — will bring together researchers on collaborative projects, fund seed grants and facilitate prestigious research exchange programs for students and faculty at the two universities.

“Partnerships like the one Penn State has with our close collaborators at the University of Freiburg not only integrate key themes of Penn State’s Strategic Plan, but they have the potential to change the way the world thinks about a particular topic,” said Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost at the University. “We’re two institutions on two continents that have core strength in this space and by working together we can innovate and elevate beyond what we could accomplish on our own to build a more sustainable society.”

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.

“I am honored to be the inaugural director of the center, with the mission to pursue bold multidisciplinary research that accelerates scientific discoveries and puts Penn State in a very visible and leading role nationally and internationally,” Ounaies said. “Future leaps in research necessitate convergence without walls between disciplines or majors. For that reason, my goal is to facilitate collaborative, global teams from multiple areas and to nurture a community of young researchers — I imagine mechanical engineers and biologists teaming up with artists, social scientists and ethicists. The opportunity this center will open up for our students is remarkable.”

Before joining Penn State’s College of Engineering in 2011, Ounaies was an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Virginia Commonwealth University and a senior scientist at NASA Langley Research Center. Among her accomplishments, Ounaies is a fellow of the International Society for Optics and Photonics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 2019, she received the Rosemary Schraer Mentoring Award for her longstanding work to mentor and support junior faculty at Penn State. She is the author of more than 150 published papers in leading journals, refereed proceedings, and invited book chapters, and she is the inventor or co-inventor of eight patents.

As director, Ounaies will oversee the center at Penn State, and work closely with her counterpart Jürgen Rühe, professor of chemistry and physics and director of the Cluster of Excellence Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems (livMatS) at the University of Freiburg. Together, they will spearhead joint initiatives, research projects and student exchanges, which are slated to begin later this year.

“I am looking forward to working with Zoubeida Ounaies to develop the center into an international platform that answers the global challenges of our time with a new class of engineered living materials,” Rühe said. “She will help lay the foundations for a mutual exchange of knowledge and establish new opportunities for cooperation between undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and faculty of both universities.”

Rühe will visit Penn State from Feb. 8 to 12 and will join Ounaies for a series of meetings with faculty members and University leadership to discuss potential collaborations, activities and programs. The visit will lay the groundwork for next steps, including a call for seed grants this summer leading up to the start of programming expected in fall 2020. To foster multidisciplinary collaboration, the center will be housed in the Energy and Environment Laboratory at University Park.

“Building out in this particular space will create synergies with existing areas of strength and also serve as a host for visiting faculty from Freiburg, and elsewhere, who want to come to Penn State and work in this area,” said Tom Richard, director of the Institutes for Energy and the Environment. “These partnerships will help create a new generation of bio-inspired materials that incorporate characteristics of living systems, such as energy harvesting, self-healing, adaptation to changing environments, replication and other functionality in ways that we couldn't have even imagined a few years ago.”

For example, these materials could potentially be used to enable a building façade to adapt to changing environmental conditions for heating and cooling management or could have the ability to self-heal and interface with living tissues to help with wound healing and prosthetics.

As she takes on this new leadership role, Ounaies says mentoring and supporting faculty, researchers and students involved with the center will continue to be her priority.

“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. “I see this center as an opportunity to build a new research community under the exciting umbrella of living material systems.”

Faculty from Penn State and Freiburg have been collaborating since 1998, and the full strategic partnership of the two universities began in 2014 through leadership guidance from the Office of Global Programs.

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