Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng.,Ph.D
Engineer and Winner of
The Calgary YWCA Women of Distinction Award
No matter how accurate her global positioning skills, it is unlikely even Elizabeth Cannon, P. Eng., Ph.D., could have pre-calculated the commanding position she occupies in the geomatics world.
The winner of the 1994 APEGGA Early Accomplishment Award is one of only two women among The University of Calgary's 90-member engineering faculty. Her world-class Global Positioning System (GPS) software is licensed in more than 12 countries and she is ranked as one of North America's top five trainers in GPS technology. The professor in geomatics (surveying) engineering already has achieved more in the area of technical papers and major research projects than many scientists do in a lifetime. In 1993, faced with competing nominees twice her age, she was awarded the Calgary YWCA Women of Distinction Award for her contribution to the sciences. This year she was elected by members of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA) to serve three years on the governing Council.
Friends and colleagues alike agree Dr. Cannon has led the kind of life that could easily serve as a model for young women interested in pursuing a math or science-related career. Says U of C engineering professor Ed Krakiwsky, P. Eng., Ph.D. "She's a highly intelligent, organized, hard working, focused professional who delivers." One of the reasons the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) installed her in her U of C position with a women's facility award in 1991 was to establish more female faculty role models. Just recently she was awarded the Petro-Canada/NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering of the Prairie Region. The award means that beginning July 1st, half of Dr. Cannon's time will be spent on the Chair's position and half on teaching and research. NSERC will match $50,000 per year of industrial donations for the next five years.
Growing up on the fabled shores of Prince Edward Island under the guidance of her math-and-chemistry teacher mother and research-scientist father, Dr. Cannon cannot remember ever doubting her intelligence or drive for the scientific way. "My parents didn't push science on me," she says, "but provided encouragement when they saw I had an interest."
Inspired by her junior high teachers to pursue her scientific curiosity and love of problem solving, she was sometimes called "Brain" by schoolmates. But even as a child she learned not to take herself too seriously and to seek out a balanced life with such interests as synchronized and competitive swimming.
Chose Survey Engineering
After completing her certificate of engineering and a B.Sc. in mathematics and computer science at Acadia University, the young graduate was faced with the choice of engineering specialties. She chose to pursue a survey engineering degree at The University of Calgary over electronics, "because it's a science I can visualize, it involves math and computers and I can see its application in the community," she says.
When, after graduation, she went to work on the research and development group of Calgary's Nortech Surveys, she continued to take a balanced approach to life. She met her husband-to-be - and now co-worker - Gerard Lachapelle,
P. Eng., Ph.D., and began part-time studies aimed at a master's degree. Unlike her mother, who had to leave her employment when she married - because that's the way things were done - the young engineer carried on with her studies. She earned a master's and a doctorate, completing her Ph.D. candidacy exam just before her daughter was born, and defending her thesis when she was almost eight months pregnant with her son.
What's most surprising to many is the pragmatism of her work. For example, Dr. Cannon and associates have developed software packages for corporations aspiring to develop their own GPS capability, which are licensed by University Technologies International Inc. and marketed worldwide.
"There's a tremendous amount of regard in the international GPS community for her software," attests Brad Timinski, P. Eng., vice-president and general manager of Novatel's GPS business unit. Those sentiments are echoed by Jim McLellan, P. Eng., vice-president and general manager of Pulsearch Navigation Systems in Calgary, who says, "She's actually developed some of the few software packages outside of GPS manufacturers that you can actually work with."
Her geomatics wizardry is in big demand from research granting organizations and corporations from across North America and as far away as Germany and Japan. Dr. Cannon and husband Dr. Lachapelle are working on a $750,000 project for the U. S. navy aimed at developing mathematical models. The models will be built into software that will more accurately determine the relative positioning of two aircraft in flight, which will help the navy zero in on submarines.
On another project for Alberta Agriculture she is using her accuracy-improving techniques to monitor crop yields by location. If it works out, agriculturalists will be able to determine exactly how much fertilizer to put on various locations to improve production. NSERC has provided $193,000 to a U of C team, which includes Dr. Cannon, to develop a precise aircraft positioning and orientation system that can be used for forestry management and environmental monitoring. Other projects are looking at this technology for oil and mineral exploration and to measure movements in structures, such as office towers and bridges.
Future applications could allow new cars, trucking fleets, or rental vehicles to have built-in route guidance systems to navigate for the driver. Smart ships guided by onboard positioning systems are another possibility, a technology that some say, may even have prevented the Exxon Valdez disaster.
When Dr. Cannon is not "math-smithing" in front of a computer terminal or expounding on the virtues of accuracy before a class of green geomatics engineering students, she's travelling across the continent to bring organizations and companies up to speed on the latest GPS technologies. She also sits at the meeting tables of such prestigious associations as the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, the U. S. Institute of Navigation, and the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG).
Supporting Women in Science
Not surprisingly she also has been called upon by women's groups. As a connection group leader for the U of C's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, she provides support for female undergraduate science and engineering students. She acts as a liaison between the university and working engineers and has participated in the job-shadowing program of Operation Minerva, which also encourages young women to pursue careers in science.
Even though she is only 34, Dr. Cannon can see the need to get more female successors in place to provide a more balanced view in the engineering profession and in organizations such as APEGGA.
Her mission became all too clear the day a male student got up to leave when she walked in to teach Engineering 213. "He thought he was in the wrong class because it was being taught by a woman," she says. "That's when I realized how important it is to have a positive influence on male students as well as female."
Contact Dr. Elizabeth Cannon
Reprinted with permission from The PEGG, the publication of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA).
Science & Technology Week Calendar Tribute for Dr. Cannon
2002 Biography of Elizabeth Cannon