Don Cowan receives honorary J.W. Graham Medal in Innovation and Computing at Graham Symposium

On Saturday, October 1, distinguished professor emeritus Don Cowan (MSc ’61, PhD ’65) received an honorary J.W. Graham Medal in Innovation and Computing at the Wes Graham Symposium.

The award recognized Cowan’s “extensive academic career, pioneering research in mathematics and computer science, entrepreneurial spirit, and devotion to mentorship and knowledge sharing.”

“I feel truly overwhelmed,” said Cowan about the honour. “It has been an amazing 62-year journey through the halls of the University of Waterloo and related organizations. I have lived through vacuum tube computers, $8M transistor computers to ones you can carry in your pocket that cost a few hundred dollars and make the $8M computer look small in speed and capacity.”

The J.W. Graham Medal in Computing & Innovation was created in 1994 to recognize the leadership and many innovative contributions made to the University of Waterloo, and to the Canadian computer industry by J. Wesley Graham, during his career as both a professor and university administrator.

“There truly is no one who emulates the qualities of Wes Graham more than Don Cowan,” said Ian McPhee, co-founder of WATCOM, 1995 recipient of the J.W. Graham Medal and member of the Graham Medal selection committee.

Cowan obtained his Master’s and Doctoral degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Waterloo (in 1961 and 1965). He began his teaching career in the early 1960s and was the Founding Chair of the computer science department. Under his leadership, the department grew from 3 to 35 members in five years and soon ranked as one of the best in the world. 

In 1965 and 1966, Cowan helped Wes Graham acquire and install the IBM 360/75 mainframe, Canada’s largest computer at the time.

“Just think about this little university in Southwestern Ontario going after a machine that size—what gall!” said Cowan in his acceptance speech.

Cowan was a part of the team that developed and distributed several software systems including WATFOR, WATFIV, WATBOL, WIDJET, WATERLOO Pascal, APL, BASIC, COBOL and FORTRAN, the local area networks Waterloo JANET and MacJANET and many other software systems for education.

He ran computer science days to interest high school students in computers and programming and supervised over 120 graduate students during his career. In 1999, he received the designation of Distinguished Professor Emeritus in recognition of all his academic accomplishments.

Cowan is also a successful entrepreneur, being a key member of various University of Waterloo spinoff companies like WATCOM and LivePage. 

Retirement has not slowed down Don’s interest in emerging technologies. He keeps current through his Directorships of various start-ups, non-profits and corporations. He currently sits as Chair of the Board of Driftscape, Volunteer Attract and Civic Atlas.

The symposium also featured talks by Edith Law, Associate Professor, David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science and Pedro Elkind Velmovitsky, PhD student in Public Health and Health Systems. Law spoke about the challenges of crowdsourcing and how to design systems that coordinate human and machine intelligence to tackle difficult problems, such as medical annotation. 

Velmovitsky discussed several projects he is working on at Waterloo’s Ubiquitous Health Technology Lab that use smart technologies to improve mental health, promote healthy aging, conduct environmental research and detect misinformation. He also explained how data from these projects can be connected in a unified and secure health data ecosystem.

A video of the event is available on the Faculty of Mathematics YouTube channel.