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An academic with her fingers on the pulse of industry

Elizabeth Cannon is an academic leader, engineering innovator and one of the pioneers in turning global positioning systems into a mainstay of today's cars and hand-held devices. But now she is taking on the most demanding role of her life as president of the University of Calgary. When she assumed the job in July 2010, the university had been reeling from a series of financial and reputational knocks, including the heated controversy over a $4.75-million pension accorded her predecessor which was unreported for several years. She describes her approach to the new job.

Alberta's two major universities are now run by women engineers - you and Indira Samarasekera at the University of Alberta. What's that all about?

Alberta was built largely on science and technology in terms of driving our economy. We have in Calgary the highest concentration of engineers of any city in North America, and so people resonate with having an engineer as president. You want to think big but at the end of the day you want to be able to deliver, and that's what engineering is all about.

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Are women finally making great strides in getting into engineering?

The short answer is no, and it's not that different in Canada than in the United States and Western Europe. In Canada, we actually reached a peak in terms of the percentage of women in undergraduate engineering programs in 2001 at 20.5 per cent. We have now slipped back to just over 17 per cent. But in our own school of engineering, we have continued to climb. We're at 24 per cent, which is the highest of the larger engineering programs in the country.

Why is that?

The people within the university and the community have worked very hard to encourage young women. Because Calgary is a community based on science and technology, the relevance of what an engineering career can do for you is more apparent here. We know young women want to pick careers that allow them to make a difference. That's evident here. There are a lot strong mentors with moms and dads being engineers too. But we've got a ways to go.

Did you ever work as an engineer in the private sector?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in engineering, I worked for a small company here in Calgary. That's where I got exposed to GPS technology which is my academic area. It was a time where nobody knew what it was. I just knew it was going to be a neat technology that was going to make a difference. I needed to know more and went back to university for graduate work.

Is there some part of a car that contains Elizabeth Cannon's work?

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Not directly, although we've done lots of research with car manufacturers. But when we work with Toyota, it's looking way down the road at almost self-navigable car systems. So it's kind of pushing the envelope much beyond what you're seeing in a car today. We looked at high-precision, centimetre-level positioning of a vehicle and if you do that, you start to get into robotics and other things. When you can push the limits on the accuracy, a lot of new applications open up and it's not just limited to cars, but aircraft or working with RIM [Research in Motion Ltd.]on GPS in your BlackBerry.

Is this a turnaround situation at the university?

We certainly have some challenges, but we've got a lot of momentum too in terms of the physical infrastructure, some of our big research programs, our student growth.

We're meeting the challenges head on and we've been off to a good start in terms of really getting the community inspired about where we want to go and working together. People need to see me out there; they need to see me connecting. I talk about three key values: communication, collaboration and a commitment to transparency. They have to not only hear it - they've got to see it and what we do, not only from me but right through my team.

So is it fair to say the university had some image issues?

We've had some bumps along the way, no question, and part of it is that we've grown so much in student numbers over the last 10 years. Obviously one goes through a little bit of chaos with that and we would acknowledge that our systems and processes which support the university did not keep up with our size and complexity. We're fixing that now and we want to be, and be seen to be, a well-run organization so we can focus on our teaching and research.

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In terms of transparency, haven't you put a lot of things about yourself online?

Yeah, the pension is all discussed in my contract and my contract is online. It's a standard pension so there are no surprises there, no special deal.

A lot of academics start out as specialists in a narrow discipline. How do you get to be a leader?

I was never going to be an academic actually. I had been working in the industry after my undergraduate degree, came back specifically to do graduate work in an area that I thought had a great future, always with the intent to go back to industry. I thought climbing that corporate ladder was the way to go through my career.

But opportunity came up, and I said I'd try academia. I'm still here. But what became instilled in me, especially in an engineering school, was that I didn't want to be disconnected from the community. In my academic career, I did basic research but I did a lot of research with industry, commercialized a lot of technology, interfaced with a lot of companies, and was involved in the community. That was really important because, again, it's about getting the work you do out into industry and seeing it used. So I always sort of had one foot in each camp. Within the institution, you need that academic credibility to lead but you also have a view from the outside in appreciating what the community expects.

Are resource industries, such as Calgary's oil and gas sector, dumb industries?

Sometimes people like to say that the industry is not innovative. Our argument is there is a lot of innovation. It's perhaps not championed enough but it is there if you look at the work being done on our campus and other campuses, and at the work that industry does itself. They invest a lot of money in innovation. They take huge risks and they're trying to do the right thing. They will say the way for them to move forward is to innovate.

Is it fair to label Canada as an unproductive nation because we don't embrace technology?

I had a briefing a few weeks ago at the pre-budget consultation. If you look at the numbers where Canada stands relative to the G7, we do very well except for productivity growth. We know within that productivity measure, we want to look at human capital. Obviously universities are a big part of that. We want to ensure the skill sets and the knowledge are there and our ability to drive innovation and ensure that our ideas aren't just staying in the labs.

Isn't the real problem in the commercialization of technology?

We have to be careful because not all research can be commercialized. We want to make sure that we continue funding our basic research because that's the pipeline. But we are always committed to the concept of commercialization or translation because we know it's an important driver for the country. And there's the guy who's trying to innovate in his garage. How do you help him or her get the skill sets needed and the support needed to help commercialize? So we've got to get creative.

Was your GPS work applied or theoretical?

Both. We did very theoretical work and very basic research right up through the applications in a number of areas. GPS is very strong in this city in part because it was adopted by the energy companies for offshore rig positioning and Shell was the first. There was a small company that was spun off Shell and I worked for that company.

So now Calgary is one of the world centres of excellence in GPS technology from an industry perspective, but also here at the university and in the services sector. It has really grown more or less organically. You had huge customers, you had educational and research support, you had the suppliers, and they were all here.

With Alberta going through political change, do you have political ambitions?

I'm in politics, I'm a university president.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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