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Alumni Steven Wrenn returns as Chemical Engineering department head

Steven Wrenn

Steven Wrenn has been appointed head of the Department of Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering, effective Nov. 1.

Wrenn comes to Virginia Tech from Drexel University, where he has been a faculty member in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering since 1999, serving as the associate department head from 2005 to 2017 and the assistant dean of graduate affairs from 2011 to 2013. Wrenn is currently a professor of chemical engineering in the department and the chief scientific officer of Baltimore-based start-up company Sonnest Inc.

Wrenn is also a Hokie alumnus, having earned his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in chemical engineering in 1991.

“Steve brings a wealth of valuable experience from both academia and industry that will help us chart a strategic path for the future of chemical engineering at the university and beyond,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “During his time at Drexel, he has distinguished himself not only as a strong collaborator and researcher in the fields of ultrasound-triggered drug delivery and biological colloids, but also as a standout educator. His energy and enthusiasm are unmatched, and we’re excited to welcome Steve back home to Virginia Tech Engineering.”    

David Cox, professor and current head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, has led the department since 2013 and will retire from the university on Aug. 10. Professor of chemical engineering William Ducker will serve as the department’s interim head until Wrenn arrives in November.

“Dave has been a dedicated leader who has positioned the department well for future growth and success,” said Ross. “We’re grateful for his many years of service to the university and the college.”

Throughout Wrenn’s tenure at Drexel University, he has focused his research efforts on medical applications involving the interaction of ultrasound and biological colloids, often collaborating with clinicians and engineers in other disciplines to advance these concepts for both therapy and diagnostics. Applications for his research include controlled release of drugs and enhanced contrast imaging, with a focus on coronary artery disease.  

As an inventor and developer, Wrenn holds three U.S. patents and has a fourth pending. Together with his colleagues, he created an ultrasound contrast agent that is the first electrically sensitive imaging agent for assessing and monitoring the perfusion, structure, and function of the heart. This technology has recently been licensed by Sonnest Inc., a start-up company for which Wrenn serves as the chief scientific officer. Wrenn’s additional industry experience includes three years with Zeneca Inc. and one year with GE Plastics, the latter as part of a co-op program while he was a student at Virginia Tech.

“I’m thrilled to be rejoining the College of Engineering in this leadership role,” said Wrenn. “As an alumnus, I know firsthand that Virginia Tech is a very special place that exemplifies the spirit of Ut Prosim both inside and outside the classroom. The Department of Chemical Engineering is in a strong position to complement pure fundamental research, which is the mainstay of our discipline, with an entrepreneurial approach to cross-disciplinary collaboration and use-inspired innovation.”

As a dedicated educator who has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels throughout his tenure at Drexel, Wrenn employs a student-centric approach in the classroom through active engagement and technology. “I love to teach, and it’s one of the main reasons I became a professor,” said Wrenn. “I feel a deep obligation to serve students well in the classroom. I also know from my own experience that hands-on opportunities like industry co-ops can really help students understand where theory meets practice.”

Wrenn’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Whitaker Foundation, and the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership, among others. His honors include an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship, an NSF CAREER Award, and two Pfizer Inc. Atorvastatin Research Awards.

In addition to his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech, Wrenn received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware in 1997 and 2000, respectively.