University of Waterloo mourns Pearl Sullivan, pillar of engineering community

The University of Waterloo is mourning the loss of former engineering dean Pearl Sullivan who spent most of her time in the role fighting cancer.

Sullivan spent her time as dean also fighting cancer

Pearl Sullivan, who was the university’s former dean of engineering and first woman to hold the position, died on Nov. 28 after a 12-year battle with cancer. (University of Waterloo )

The University of Waterloo and its engineering department is grieving the loss of a former faculty lead who reimagined engineering education and paved the way for the next generation of industry leaders.

Pearl Sullivan, the university's former dean of engineering and first woman to hold the position, died on Nov. 28 after a 12-year battle with cancer. She's survived by her husband, son and two daughters.

Born in Malaysia, Sullivan came to Canada in the 1980s and the University of Waterloo in 2004, just four years before her cancer diagnosis. Through her term as dean, she helped launch new spaces and transformative programs and expanded the potential for government support to move forward key areas of research, said the university in a statement in her memory.

Mary Wells, current dean of engineering, said Sullivan was well-known and loved by many.

"There's not many people in this world who you know by a first name. There's Beyoncé, there's Cher and there's Pearl," said Wells, fondly. "If I said Pearl and engineering together, everybody would know who she was."

Wells recalls being personally recruited by Sullivan; she convinced Wells to leave her post at UBC for University of Waterloo. The two became close, personal friends, she says. 

Pictured here at centre, Pearl Sullivan was tiny in stature, but her contribution to University of Waterloo's engineering program was giant, says current-dean, Mary Wells. (WaterlooENG/Twitter)

"She was an incredibly kind person. It didn't matter who you were, she took the time to get to know you. She absolutely loved the students. She dedicated her entire life to Waterloo engineering and most importantly, it was her students that she cared about the most. She really embodied what it meant to be a professor," said Wells, noting Sullivan was also a neighbour.

"I admire her so much. Despite having cancer and battling that for years, she never, ever complained about it and she put all of her energy to helping elevate Waterloo engineering," she told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

'Her legacy is enormous'

Sullivan invested in disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology, robotics and wireless communications, according to the university. 

She was devoted to the education of students and as a result launched the faculty's Educating the Engineer of the Future campaign, which helped students achieve their goals. She also helped implement the Engineering Ideas Clinic, which helps enhance practical skills through hands-on design challenges, said the university.

"Although she was tiny in stature, she was a giant in terms of the role that she played in our engineering community and she was hugely respected among all her colleagues," said Wells.

She was admired and beloved by students as well, says Jay Shah, who graduated from the University of Waterloo's mechatronics program when Sullivan was department chair. 

"She was a builder, she was a transformer, she was a huge inspiration — even as a student, when you're so far removed from kind of the upper administration, particularly dean, she still inspired, I'd say, the entire faculty including early students to achieve their best."

Shah said he felt her dedication to investing in students first-hand, when he took over as director of Velocity, the university's startup incubator. By prioritizing entrepreneurship among students, she was "taking a bet" on their future, he said. 

"She was just a force to be reckoned with and her legacy is enormous. I'm so grateful that I got a chance to work with her, to be mentored by her, to have her support over the years," said Shah.

"I consider myself very lucky. And I think the region, the university, and the thousands and thousands of students who have grown and developed because of her and her leadership have a lot to be thankful for." 

Sullivan came to the University of Waterloo in 2004 and worked as a mechanical engineering professor and soon after she served as chair of the mechanical and mechatronics engineering department. She became the fourth woman in Canada to head a school of engineering.

She was previously recognized for her accomplishments through the university's Outstanding Performance Award. Just last year, Sullivan was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering as a fellow.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a celebration of her life will be held at a later date at the University of Waterloo.

Sullivan was an innovator in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and robotics according to the University of Waterloo. (University of Waterloo)

With files from the CBC's Carmen Groleau and Joe Pavia


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