New department head to lead mechanical engineering

Professor Mary Frecker, a Penn State faculty member since 1997, will oversee one of the largest mechanical engineering departments in the country


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Following an international search, Mary Frecker, the Riess Chair in Engineering and Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Penn State, has been named department head of the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering. She will begin on Aug. 15.

Frecker succeeds Distinguished Professor Karen A. Thole as mechanical engineering department head. Thole is stepping down and returning to a full-time faculty position.

“The next era for the department is bright,” said Justin Schwartz, the Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “Under Dr. Thole’s direction, the mechanical engineering program has grown in size, international stature and impact. Now, Dr. Frecker has the first-hand experience and foundation in the department to lead the faculty, students and staff into the future.”

In 2020, Frecker established the Penn State Center for Biodevices and continues to serve as its inaugural director. The collaborative unit’s purpose is to initiate and support leading-edge research in biodevices by facilitating impactful collaborations among the College of Engineering, the College of Medicine, Eberly College of Science, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

In the short time since its formation, the center has connected more than 100 researchers across the University, established a seed grant program, mobilized to assist in a University-wide COVID-19 response, conducted virtual workshops and coordinated doctoral fellowships.

Frecker earned a master of science and doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton. In 1997, she joined the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering as the Pearce Development assistant professor.

During her time in the department, Frecker previously served as the associate head for graduate programs, overseeing the graduate education and student research efforts. In this position, she established a peer mentoring program to support new and current graduate students and created a department-level competition for graduate students to showcase their visually engaging research. She also helped to oversee the online master of science program, with enrollment growing to more than 100 students during her time as associate head.

She also served as the director of the College of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory, which positioned her at the helm of industry relations, coordination of the student capstone design program and fundraising for the program.

Frecker was also a member of the 2019-20 class of fellows for Drexel University’s Executive Leadership in Academic Technology, Engineering and Science program. The experience aims to prepare senior women faculty to advance in their STEM careers through a one-year national academic leadership development program.

As a researcher, Frecker focuses on discovering optimal designs for adaptive structures, targeted at applications ranging from aerospace systems to medical devices. She has secured more than $14 million in external funding and will continue serving as the co-director of her research lab, the Engineering Design and Optimization Group.

“With more than 60 tenure-line faculty members and yearly research expenditures of $29.5 million, the Department of Mechanical Engineering embraces a culture of discovery, community, inclusion and excellence,” Frecker said. “I aim to build on our highly successful track record of research, recruiting and mentoring new faculty and providing a first-rate education to our students. Together with the support of our outstanding staff and alumni, we will celebrate our positive impacts and develop the future thought leaders in the field.”


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


College of Engineering Media Relations