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Q&A with Elizabeth Cannon

Q: How did you come to study at the University of Calgary?

A: I transferred from Acadia University to the University of Calgary in 1982 to finish my engineering degree. I wanted to head west and have a different experience beyond the Maritimes. Here I became interested in the geomatics industry, at the time a fledgling sector. We didn’t exactly know then the future uses of geomatics technologies such as GPS, and their value to society, but we did know they would change the world. It was very attractive as a frontier, full of new challenges.

After working in industry, I decided to do my master’s degree and PhD, always thinking that I would return to industry. But after I finished my PhD I joined the University of Calgary as a faculty member. With my hire, the number of female professors in engineering was doubled, from one to two!

Q: You’ve since built a strong career in academia, with much of your academic work also involving industry and the larger Calgary community. What is it about industry that continues to attract you?

A: I don’t think the university can be isolated. I’ve always wanted to make connections between research, industry and the community. This holds true as much for engineering as for other programs. The university specializes in research and education within a social context, and there is a societal connection that we can and need to have, whether it is through applied research, spin-off companies, science cafés, night classes, internships, sporting events or publishing.

My background in geomatics has shown me how powerful this connection can be. Calgary is now considered a hub for leading geomatics companies and new technologies. The community could not have done this without the university and the university could not have achieved this without the community.

Q: You’ve been with the University of Calgary for nearly 35 years, as a student, faculty member, and formerly as dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. What attracted you to the presidential role?

A: I have a passion for the frontiers that this university opens up. I have spent my formative and professional years here and I have learned a lot about what creates success. I have a very good understanding of our strengths and our opportunities, and this role has allowed me to apply my experiences on a much larger scale.

This university has come a long way for the young university that it is. We are a member of the U15 university group and we are in the top six in Canada in terms of research funding. We have gained recognition nationally and, in some areas, internationally. It has happened fast. So the goal now is to solidify our strengths, to refine our vision, and to take that next step from good to great. We need to be disciplined, and we need to focus on quality and clarity of direction. That potential excites me. It’s within our grasp.

Q: What are the greatest strengths of the University of Calgary?

A: We have so many advantages compared to other post-secondary institutions. We are located in a great city with a well-educated population. This city has a solid economic base, and we truly do embrace a ‘can-do’ attitude. We need to build even stronger collaborations with this community.

We’re a young organization, and we are still maturing. Perhaps because of our relative youth we haven’t built up traditional academic silos. In this day and age, this is a huge character advantage. We have the ability and interest to work together – an ability to work across disciplinary boundaries in areas such as energy and environment, biomedical engineering, and public policy. We will continue to leverage this strong history of collaboration across faculties. This is a huge advantage for our students, community and researchers. It’s part of our character, and we should embrace this with great pride.