Alum Ruthie Lyle-Cannon: Trail Blazer, Master Inventor, Engineer

Dr. Ruthie Lyle-Cannon (’98) is philosophical about life. “I’ve completed only a part of my journey,” she says, “and I’m looking forward to the growth and adventure that the next part might bring.”

Her journey so far has been an eventful one. Lyle-Cannon has the distinction of being the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree from what was then known as Polytechnic University and one of the rare women to be named Master Inventor at IBM, a company she joined in 1999. Now a lead research engineer at USAA, a financial services company dedicated to the security and well-being of members of the U.S. military and their families, Lyle-Cannon admits that her path might have been much different if not for several fortuitous meetings and pivotal mentors.

Lyle Cannon

Influential Mentors

The first mentor was a teacher at her Long Island public high school who introduced her to the idea of a career in engineering and convinced her that she had the aptitude. (Lyle-Cannon has joked that before him, she thought engineers only worked on trains.) Then later, while earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Northeastern University, where she was part of the Progress in Minority Engineering initiative, she met an engineer on leave from IBM who proved especially motivating. Thanks to him, she made a leap of confidence and embarked on a research project in electromagnetics with Philip Serafim, a Northeastern faculty member who had once been a Poly professor. Serafim, in turn, told her about the electromagnetics facilities at Poly and guided her successfully through the application process.

Soon after graduating with her doctoral degree, Lyle-Cannon accepted a job at KeySpan Energy and was invited to address the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. Following her speech, she received a note from Nick Donofrio, who was then a former senior vice president of IBM. It was thanks to that unexpected interaction that she landed at the iconic company, where she won dozens of patents and remained until 2013.

Guiding the Next Generation

Lyle-Cannon is determined to mentor others as she has been mentored. She is often called upon to address groups of young aspiring engineers and has been active with the pioneering group Black Girls Code. “It invigorates and inspires me to know I’m influencing the next generation of engineers, who will be so vital to the world,” she says.

One of those aspiring STEM stars just might be her own 9-year-old son, who is an avid fan of LEGOS and already knows how to write code. “Every young person should be involved with tech in some capacity,” she asserts, “because in the future, every job, no matter what the sector, will have a tech component.”

The Continuing Journey

Lyle-Cannon, who recently spoke at the 2016 MIT Startup Exchange on Innovation at USAA, enjoys addressing audiences of all ages from a wide variety of fields, and she herself is proof that you don’t have to be a youngster to aspire. Regarding the next steps in her own journey, she foresees becoming more involved in entrepreneurial activities and technology transfer. “USAA is a very innovative company,” she explains. “Some of the products and services that are now commonplace in banking, such as the ability to deposit a check remotely, had their genesis there, in the needs of the military community.”

There may also be journeys in the more literal sense, especially as invitations to keynote events and motivate audiences present themselves. "I've traveled to Cuba and Chile in order to expand my perspective, and I would like to extend those travels to regions in Europe, Africa, and Asia to absorb those milieus, witness the innovations happening there, and grow even further," she says. “You have to think beyond your own field and culture sometimes, and I'm looking forward to taking every opportunity to do so.”