Ruthie Lyle-Cannon: Tracing the Path of a History Maker

The first black woman to earn a PhD from NYU-Poly jokes that she grew up believing that "engineers worked on trains." Dr. Ruthie Lyle-Cannon ’98 PhD EE wouldn't meet a real engineer until she was in high school. He would be the first in a long line of teachers and mentors to help propel Lyle-Cannon to her place in Poly history and, ultimately, toward a career steeped in innovation and invention.

Lyle-Cannon is one of the few women to earn the distinction of Master Inventor at IBM, where she has worked since 1999. It's difficult to imagine that the holder of more than 40 hardware and software patents-- with another 150 pending--could have become anything other than an engineer, but she positions her early introduction to the field as a lucky break.

Lyle-Cannon's public high school class in Roosevelt, Long Island was one of the first to be enrolled in an experimental program that exposed high school students to college-level engineering courses. A new teacher was hired for the program, and Lyle-Cannon recalls that he "was so motivating. Here was this subject that seemed interesting to me, but I wasn't sure I could succeed. He made me believe I could."

Lyle-Cannon learned the basics of engineering, studying circuits at both her high school and at nearby Stony Brook University in the Science and Technology Entry Program. She enrolled at Northeastern University, where she earned her bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1992. There she met two people who would change the course of her future: one was an IBM employee, the other a professor who suggested she pursue a graduate degree at a university she'd never heard of, in downtown Brooklyn.

At Northeastern, Lyle-Cannon joined the Progress in Minority Engineering program, an initiative to groom minority students for science careers. "I never took calculus or physics in high school, if you can believe it," Lyle-Cannon explained. "Through that program I met an engineer on leave from IBM. He wasn't just a great teacher who helped fill in my educational gaps, he was also my inspiration." With his encouragement, Lyle-Cannon embarked on an undergraduate research project in electromagnetics with Philip Serafim, a Northeastern faculty member who was a former professor at Polytechnic. He piqued Lyle-Cannon's interest in the university and shepherded her through the graduate application process.

"I applied for the master's program in electrophysics, and instead of a letter of acceptance, I got an invitation to visit the Poly campus and meet with some of the luminaries of the field, which really impressed me," she said. The Poly staff encouraged her to enter the PhD program and, in 1998, she made history by becoming the first black woman to earn a doctorate from Poly.

The next big push in Lyle-Cannon's professional life came through a combination of luck and courage. In 1999, she was invited to address the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. Following her speech at the event, she received a highly complimentary note from an attendee who worked for IBM. It was Nick Donofrio. "I showed the letter to my boss at KeySpan… and he said 'Do you know who this is?' He flipped open the Wall Street Journal and said 'Ruthie, Nick Donofrio is a vice president at IBM. He reports directly to the CEO."

She reached out to Donofrio directly and "that's how I ended up at IBM.”

Twelve years later, Lyle-Cannon is the mentor, and she's determined to pay forward the gifts of guidance that were given to her throughout her career. She has mentored two women who also have become IBM Master Inventors, and is an avid participant in an IBM summer camp that brings middle school girls to the company's Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina for a week of hands-on learning.

She's also a strong believer in the power of networking, especially among Poly alumni. "Early in my career, I cold-called one of the top executives at a Fortune 500 company,” Lyle-Cannon said. "When she heard I went to Poly, she took the call. That speaks for itself."