Alumni Spotlight: Jill Zande, President/Executive Director, MATE II

Black and white photo of Jill Zande speaking at a podium
  • Degree: MS, Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, 1994
  • Hometown: Bradford, PA
  • High School: Bradford Area High

Jill Zande, the president and executive director of Marine Advanced Technology Education for Inspiration and Innovation (MATE II), has had an abiding interest in marine technology for more than 25 years because it allows her to explore the ocean while applying order, organization, and human innovation to that enigmatic world.

Her interest in marine technology piqued while pursuing her master’s in oceanography and coastal sciences at LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment, or CC&E. There, while under the guidance of her major professor, Bob Carney, she used Johnson Sea-Link and Alvin submersibles to investigate hydrocarbon seep communities in the Gulf of Mexico. After graduating, she went to work for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Dauphin Island, Alabama, as a research associate studying sea grasses, but still kept in touch with Carney.

“However, as I progressed in my later career, I realized that while I appreciated the research I did, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Zande said.

So, she leaned on her former major professor for support. It turned out that Carney had recently returned from a forum in Monterey, California, about an initiative to form a new marine technology education center there. He connected Zande with the organizers who had written the grant. They had just received funding and were looking for an outreach person to help with their communications and website. They appreciated the expansive knowledge of science and technology that she developed at LSU, as well as her strong writing and communications skills, and so they hired her. 

Since she received Carney’s recommendation, Zande has worked at the MATE II center for 21 years where she has helped to develop international and regional underwater robotics competitions for students in grades 5–16 from around the world. The competition began in 2002 with 22 teams from two countries and has since expanded to include 36 regional events and nearly 800 teams around the world.A MATE competition participant prepares to submerge her ROV into a pool

The program is intended to inspire students to learn and apply STEM skills to solving real-world challenges and to expose students to career pathways. The MATE II competitions are a “mission” in which students must build and use remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs, to solve practical workplace problems. For example, last year’s mission involved looking at mock structural issues in a Tennessee dam. In addition to using ROVs to inspect the foundation and identify the problem, the teams were required to include technical reports, displays, and presentations that were then evaluated by working professionals from STEM fields. These additional requirements necessitate that students gain “soft” skills such as troubleshooting, teamwork, project management, and effective communication. According to Zande, these skills are increasingly valued in the technical sector.  

Zande credits LSU with teaching her how to “put a project together and be organized and methodical and work through it and then write it up,” the exact same lessons she wants to impart to the MATE II student competitors.

“We have a real entrepreneurial approach to our competition. It’s not just about the vehicle and how you build it. Can you write about it? Can you put it into a visual display that’s easy to understand? We tell the students, ‘Don’t think of yourselves as a team. Think of yourselves as a company,’” Zande said.

Zande is steadfast in her bigger purpose—to impart the lessons she learned from her early career and education at LSU and to fiercely inspire the next generation of the coastal and environmental workforce.

Published on August 22, 2019