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

Just the fifth woman across Canada to head a school of engineering, she was a dynamic force for Waterloo Engineering and the entire University.

Under her leadership from July 2012 to December 2019, the Faculty reimagined engineering education and research with revolutionary spaces and Pearl Sullivantransformative programs that will ensure Waterloo remains a leader in engineering well into the future.

A champion of the Faculty’s work in disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology, robotics and wireless communications, she expanded the potential for industry collaboration and government support in key areas of research.

Pearl Sullivan was the first woman to serve as dean of Waterloo Engineering. 

Passionate about supporting students, she was dedicated to ensuring they had a full understanding of engineering principles as well as the tools and facilities they needed to succeed.   

In 2015, she launched the Faculty’s Educating the Engineer of the Future Campaign and worked tirelessly to achieve its ambitious goals of building Engineering 7 (E7) and providing students with enhanced experiences to help them achieve their aspirations.

In addition to lecture halls, study areas and special spaces for project work by students in growing undergraduate programs, E7, opened in October 2018, includes the two-floor Engineering Ideas Clinic™ for hands-on design challenges and activities to help teach theoretical concepts.

Pearl outside of Engineering 7

Pearl Sullivan opens the doors to E7 in 2018. 

Compassionate and caring leader

Mary Wells, Waterloo Engineering’s current dean of engineering, said Sullivan was a beloved dean, department chair and faculty member.

 “She was a force of nature, always fearlessly working to advance Waterloo Engineering and opportunities for our students and faculty members,” said Wells. “As a compassionate and caring leader, Pearl could rally her team to the causes that would matter most.”

Wells said Sullivan prided herself in being a strong voice for women and in ensuring full diversity and inclusion in engineering.  

“She was also a strong advocate for entrepreneurship who worked to both elevate and champion our entrepreneurial students and alumni,” Wells said. “She is irreplaceable and the memory of her personal strength will always be a beacon of courage for us all.”

An original who pushed boundaries in her field

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, said he was devastated to hear of Sullivan’s passing.

“There is no doubt that Pearl left an indelible mark on the Faculty of Engineering and the University of Waterloo, but most importantly, on her students, friends and colleagues,” said Hamdullahpur. ''She exemplified how one can combine vision, determination, resilience and hard work and deliver it in the most caring and passionate way. That’s how Pearl did everything she put her brilliant mind and kind heart into it. 

“Pearl was an original and made a positive impression on me from the first time I had the pleasure of meeting her to the last. She was an exceptional scholar in her own right, pushing the boundaries of her field, but it was clear to anyone who worked with her that she was dedicated to helping others thrive and accomplish great things. You saw it in how she talked about what engineers of the future could achieve for our global society and it make that vision a reality.

"My thoughts are with Pearl’s family and friends and share in their grief. Our community has lost a giant, Canada has lost a great Canadian and I have lost a friend. I will miss her so much.”

Pearl Sullivan at E7 groundbreaking

Pearl Sullivan, second from left, takes part in the ground-breaking ceremony for Engineering 7 with then engineering student and president of EngSoc Hannah Gautreau, far left,  University of Waterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur, second from right, and then PhD candidate in mechanical and mechatronics engineering Elahe Jabari, far right. 

Distinguished academic career

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sullivan studied both in Singapore and Canada. She received her BASc with distinction and MASc degrees in metallurgical engineering from the Technical University of Nova Scotia.  After earning her doctoral degree in materials engineering from the University of British Columbia, she started her academic career at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in 1991. 

She returned to Canada in 1994 to join the mechanical engineering department at the University of New Brunswick, where she was twice honoured Pearl having fun at engineering daywith the UNB Faculty Merit Award for Excellence.

The dean, right, having fun with 'purpling' on the Faculty's annual Engineering Day.

In 2004, Sullivan came to the University of Waterloo as a mechanical engineering professor and served as chair of the mechanical and mechatronics engineering department from 2006 until January 2012.

She was the founding director of the collaborative graduate program in nanotechnology within the Faculties of Engineering and Science. In 2009, she was recognized for her accomplishments with the University’s Outstanding Performance Award.  Sullivan was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering as a Fellow last year.

Devoted to family and her students

In a 2019 interview, Sullivan said as dean she was interested in learning about the issues and achievements of multiple portfolios, including teaching and research, undergraduate and graduate studies, international and outreach engagements, and the workings of the entire University.

“I particularly enjoy developing strategy and advancement/fundraising projects and executing major strategic initiatives,” she said. “But I must say, Pearl having fun with students outside of E7spontaneous meet-ups with our students, especially in their design and classroom activities, along the hallways and in the elevators are the most fun.”

Engineering students share a laugh with their fun-loving dean, pictured at centre.

When asked what advice she’d give herself as a first-year engineering student Sullivan responded by saying “you worked very hard to get into Waterloo Engineering and you will work even harder to get out of Waterloo Engineering.  But every bit of your sweat will be absolutely worthwhile.”

Pearl, Veronica and Tom Sullivan

Pearl Sullivan, left, celebrates the groundbreaking of E7 with daughter Veronica and husband Tom.

Sullivan devoted her life to the education of young minds and the care of her beloved family — husband Tom, a Waterloo civil and environmental engineering project manager, her son Michael (Emma) and daughters Veronica and Christina.

She will be remembered for her love of family, students and colleagues along with her boundless energy, enjoyment of running, dancing and fun music (especially K-pop), belief in the importance of healthy food, and her well-known disdain for doughnuts, but keen ability to have a second helping of dessert.

Donations may be made in memory of Sullivan to the University.

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