Pursuit of Excellence in Education

Ask Professor Maite Brandt-Pearce’s students to talk about her teaching style, and they have a common theme: She is excellent at explaining the complex mathematical concepts that are crucial to success in engineering.

 So in true mathematical fashion, Brandt-Pearce quickly enumerates the three strategies she will pursue in her new role as Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Virginia School of Engineering. She will help build a culture of transparency, empowerment, and rewards that are based on merit.

 “Faculty, students and staff must have a better sense of how the school is running,” Brandt-Pearce said. “They must feel empowered to help make improvements, and they must be confident that the evaluation system will reflect their hard work and achievements. These are key strategies to making a real, positive change in the school.”

 Such laser focus is among the reasons why Dean Craig Benson promoted Brandt-Pearce to executive associate dean from her position as professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In her role, Brandt-Pearce will assist with the selection of associate deans for graduate and undergraduate studies.

 Benson’s vision includes increasing the number of students in UVA’s world-class undergraduate engineering program; expanding opportunities for undergraduates to engage in hands-on learning and research; adding faculty; and creating a larger population of top-quality graduate students supported by a larger research enterprise.

 With her outstanding record of leadership and service to the University and her profession, Brandt-Pearce is well-qualified to tackle those big challenges, Benson said.

 “Maite is determined that UVA Engineering will reach its full potential, building upon its strong undergraduate program and becoming a leader in research and graduate education,” Benson said. “She is passionate about the things our students and faculty can accomplish in a culture of empowerment, collaboration and excellence.”

Research and Service

 Brandt-Pearce joined UVA’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1993, after earning her electrical engineering degrees from Rice University and working with Lockheed at the NASA Johnson Space Center. She specializes in the mathematical and numerical description and optimization of communication systems, signal processing, and networking, and she runs an active optical communications research lab.

Her work includes determining how much data can be pushed through an optical fiber and how to design long-haul fiber-optic networks so the data quality stays high while the amount of data passing through is increased.

 She has been selected to lead national conferences in her field, including the Optical Networks Symposium this December at Globecom, which is one of two flagship conferences of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Communications Society. Next year, she will co-chair the entire Globecom Conference Technical Committee and handle more than 3,000 research paper submissions.

 Brandt-Pearce and one of her former graduate students, Mohammad Noshad, have developed a process for using light waves from room lights to carry signals to wireless devices at 300 megabits per second. Visible light waves from light-emitting diode light fixtures allow more network access points and therefore less competition for resources than with radio waves that spread over very large areas. The potential is tremendous: Internet connections wherever there is an electric light. Brandt-Pearce and Noshad hold a patent, and Brandt-Pearce is a consultant in a Charlottesville-based firm Noshad founded to develop the technology for commercial use.

Focused on the Future

Even while maintaining such an active research program, Brandt-Pearce has challenged herself and her colleagues to improve teaching and learning in the School of Engineering, said John Lach, chair of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

 When Lach and the department began the process of overhauling its undergraduate curriculum to make the courses more effective and engaging for students, Maite stepped up and offered to co-develop two of the three Fundamentals courses. “She knew what needed to be done, felt our students deserved it, and saw the project through with tenacity and excellence.”

 Lach said he is a better chair, and the department is better as a whole, because Maite provides constructive feedback and challenges fellow faculty members to strive for quality and excellence.

 “Maite approaches everything with gusto and has a knack for engaging and inspiring others,” he said.

 Promotion, tenure and rewards systems based upon merit are important to Brandt-Pearce. She has served in various capacities on the School of Engineering’s promotion and tenure committees since 2010. She also served in 2013 on a committee that was tasked with designing a plan for hiring additional faculty in a way that was consistent with the school’s vision. The committee analyzed hiring practices, reviewed UVA demographics, made comparisons with peer institutions, interviewed department chairs, and hosted a town hall meeting to get faculty input.

 Brandt-Pearce plans to bring the same methodical approaches, combined with her love of UVA, its traditions, and its bright future, to her new role. She sees so many possibilities.

 “There is room for consensus-building and risk-taking,” she said. “Big changes will result from careful planning and bold execution. It is an exciting time to be part of the School of Engineering team.”