Dr. Donald Cowan

Donald Douglas Cowan

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo 

With a rich and expansive career in mathematics and computer science, Dr. Don Cowan can be regarded as one of the earliest pioneers of computer science at the University of Waterloo. From experiencing the formative years of the University of Waterloo to participating in one of the earliest iterations of Silicon Valley, he has always had direct involvement in exciting advances in mathematics and computing. He was also an early entrepreneur and active participant in WATCOM and LivePage, two successful University of Waterloo spinoff companies that developed out of the exciting advances occurring in the field. 

After starting his career teaching in the 1960s, Don began working on computers in a significant way and saw both the University of Waterloo campus and his field grow. Appointed as Founding Chair of the computer science department at a relatively young age, he faced the challenge of finding the people to work in a field that was still in its own youth. At the time, so few people worked in computer science in industry and academia, it was difficult to attract them to the University of Waterloo campus. However, with his passion and expertise and much help from his colleagues, the department grew from 3 to 35 members in five years and soon ranked as one of the top in the world. 

As part of the team that developed and distributed software and hardware that supported computer science education, Don helped put the University of Waterloo on the map. These early projects contributed to many of the ideas behind the software systems that support  computer-based learning for the students of today. In the 1960s, he ran computer science days, an event that annually brought thousands of high school students to the University of Waterloo and exposed them to computers and programming with a view that these young minds might embrace this exciting technology of the future. Continuing his work at the University of Waterloo, Don was principal investigator on major research projects and supervisor of graduate students. He also presided as chair of the board of five different corporations, including startups and not-for-profit organizations. 

Mentorship played a major role in the trajectory of Don’s career, and Don is a vocal advocate for sharing knowledge and experience in these relationships. He recognizes his life has been significantly influenced by his many mentors, including his parents, his uncle Donald, Ralph Stanton and Wes Graham. Over his own tenure, Don has also supervised over 120 graduate students. Don feels privileged to have mentored these young people and see them continue to push boundaries and make the impossible possible.

Despite retiring 26 years ago, Don is still quite active in research and is excited to see what the future holds for the next generation. Programming may no longer be part of his day-to-day life, but he continues to work with several companies developing new and emerging  technologies that push the boundaries of what’s possible. Don collaborates with exceptional minds that work together to provide software that augments community efforts by using artificial intelligence and mobile devices to learn about and present data at the municipal level. He remains an active researcher in computer science — staying right in the middle of progress. 

Looking back at his career, there isn’t much that Don would change. Exciting things happened because people worked together, and Don will continue to look for these connections in his ongoing research and partnerships. 

Click on the image below to go to the Profound Impact academic ancestry graph connecting Don Cowan all the way back to Issac Newton!

Dr. Cowan has a long history of entrepreneurial success. You can see some of the companies he has founded or been associated with listed in the image below. A Profound Impact indeed!

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