Diverse perspectives strengthen mechanical engineering program

October 2, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In mechanical engineering (ME) at Penn State, we are committed to solving problems related our health, happiness and safety, and along the way, often changing the way we think about the world. Diversity and inclusion are critical to reach our goals, because different perspectives bring new, innovative solutions. To celebrate this core value, we will be highlighting a variety of voices within mechanical engineering and celebrating our faculty, staff, and students leading the charge.

Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering and associate head for administration, brings a wide range of academic and personal experiences to the department. Born in Tunisia, Ounaies dedicates her research to developing the next-generation of smart materials.

“I’m interested in creating materials that can have more than one function; for example, materials that are flexible and lightweight, and in addition to that, they deform in response to electrical fields,” she said. “Polymers have these attributes, so that’s where we focus our work to modify them for a wide range of applications.”

As a former senior staff scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, Ounaies often explores these materials through the lens of aerospace applications. “Materials that can reduce weight or collect data, are extremely useful in space applications,” she explained. “But interestingly, the needs in aerospace are similar to medical needs.”

In her recent work, Ounaies investigates how these materials can be incorporated into medical sensors and devices. “It’s an interesting challenge, because in aerospace applications, we’re scaling up. In medical applications, we’re working on a micro and nanoscale,” she said. 

Ounaies credits the strength of her Arab-Muslim heritage as her inspiration for joining the engineering field. “In my culture, school is so important; not just to learn but to improve yourself,” she said. “And that is how you can help improve quality of life and benefit humankind.”

“My father encouraged my sisters and me to pursue science and engineering, but he felt that no matter what career we chose, we should do it to give back to society.”

As an Arab-Muslim woman, Ounaies recalls struggling at times as a student in the U.S., in a discipline that often did not allow for an open, accepting, and inclusive climate. Now, as a professor, Ounaies makes sure to imparts the wisdom she has gained on her students. She said, “In some way, I’m glad that I’ve struggled because now I can share my story and hope it resonates with people.”

Thao Tran-Le, a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering, moved to the United States from Vietnam only seven years before arriving at Penn State. “When I first arrived, I didn’t even know any English,” she said.

Before the rest of her family immigrated, she resided with her uncle and his family. Besides helping her transition to life in the U.S., her uncle served as an important role model as an electrical engineer. Tran-Le aspired to follow in his footsteps as a mechanical engineer.

“I wanted to go into mechanical engineering. There are so many different fields you can work in – design, thermal, fluids – so it prepares you for so many jobs,” she said.

In ME, Tran-Le researches thermal and computational fluid dynamics with Rob Kunz, professor and senior scientist of mechanical engineering. Currently, she’s working on a metal project sponsored by General Electric (GE), examining powder bed fusion, an additive manufacturing process that layers powdered metal and melts it with a laser, to create 3D-printed objects.

She is creating computational models of the scavenge gases (how the emitted gas leaves the system) and their cross-flow during this process. This work will help GE prevent defects in additive manufactured parts and make the process more efficient, as the unused powdered metal can be gathered and re-used for the next project.

While working on her research and continuing to adapt to American life, she relies on a strong support system of fellow graduate students. “At Penn State, we have a graduate group that has official lunches and dinners, we all stick together,” she said.

While their nationalities and research interests vary, Tran-Le says their companionship is invaluable. “Graduate school isn’t easy, but having that community that understands really helps relieve the stress,” she said.

As she continues on her path to her doctorate degree, she is now proud to be the role model for her family members. “My brother is even studying engineering for his undergraduate degree,” she said. “He said he wanted to follow in my footsteps, which makes me really happy.”

Audrey Blizard, an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering, always understood the power of engineering and saw the gender inequity as a challenge she wanted to take on.

“I wanted to design things from scratch, build them, and then make them more efficient. So mechanical engineering was an easy choice,” she said. “There always could be more women in the classes, but I’m glad to help change that.”

“Interestingly, I started out in sound design in the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture,” she said. “But after only two days of classes, I realized I wasn’t as interested in the arts part of theatre. It was the sound design, creating systems and solving problems, not necessarily adding artistic value.”

As an accomplished student, she now conducts undergraduate research with Jean-Michel Mongeau, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and assists in his exploration of the biomechanics used by running and flying insects to understand the basic principles of locomotion and inspire the development of more agile terrestrial and aerial robots.

“The community in mechanical engineering here is strong,” she said. “I feel like there is a lot of support for us as students and I really enjoy helping everyone else out with the material while I’m learning myself.”

Now, Blizard also encourages her younger sister to take an interest in engineering. As the mechanical engineering program becomes more diverse and equitable, she hopes her sister will benefit.

She said, “I’m hopeful that when my sister enters the College of Engineering, we will already be at a 50/50 ratio of men and women.”

David Williams, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, knew he wanted to be an engineer even as a child. “I didn’t even really know what an engineer was exactly. I just knew they built things that seemed like magic,” he said. “I wanted to figure out how it all worked.”

“Now, many years later, I still keep a certain level of child-like wonder about how things work,” he said. As a professor, Williams researches computational fluid dynamics, designing algorithms that predict how liquids, air, and gases interact with objects. Specifically, he works on programs used to design aeronautical vehicles like airplanes or fighter jets.

He is diligently working to solve a host of problems, including decreasing the noise that airplanes create. “In the military and even for commercial use, airplane noise is a serious complaint,” he said. “So we’re working to make them quieter, particularly from a human wellness standpoint.”

Growing up in a suburb outside Detroit, he feels lucky that his fascination with engineering was encouraged. “I had so many great opportunities to follow my career,” he said. “But unfortunately, a lot of people don’t.”

Understanding that, Williams said, “You really don’t know who the next great engineering talent is going to be. I was talking to a professor about how Isaac Newton was one of the most prolific scientists of the last 300, 400 years. But there were probably hundreds of people who were talented like him, but they didn’t have the right culture or circumstance to demonstrate that genius.”

“So the way I look at it is, the more people, like underrepresented minorities and women, we can get involved in engineering, the more we are going to discover those truly remarkable talents who may have otherwise gone undiscovered.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations


Students and faculty in mechanical engineering

David Williams, Zoubeida Ounaies, Thao Tran-Le, and Audrey Blizard.

“So the way I look at it is, the more people, like underrepresented minorities and women, we can get involved in engineering, the more we are going to discover those truly remarkable talents who may have otherwise gone undiscovered.”



With more than 60 faculty members, 330 graduate students, and 1,000 undergraduate students, the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering embraces a culture that welcomes individuals with a diversity of backgrounds and expertise. Our faculty and students are innovating today what will impact tomorrow’s solutions to meeting our energy needs, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems. We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S.) graduate degrees in mechanical engineering. See how we’re inspiring change and impacting tomorrow at me.psu.edu.

Department of Mechanical Engineering

137 Reber Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519