Francis Poulin

Turning the Numbers in His Favour

He once got a 35% in Grade 8 science class. Now the numbers are looking much better, for him as a mathematician studying the world's oceans.


Francis Poulin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.  We asked him everything from why he chose his field of study to which historical figure he would like to meet in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a researcher?
I wanted to become a researcher because of my desire to better understand the world in general, the oceans in particular, and continue learning new and exciting things.

What do you like most about your work?
I love that I get to use mathematics to describe the world’s oceans, computer models and algorithms to simulate them and then physics and biology principles to understand what these models predict.  The blending of these three areas is often very complicated but very rich and exciting to me.  Something I try and share with research students and also students in lectures.

What do you envision in the future of your field?
I envision that younger people will have easier access to computer models to simulate the world’s oceans.  With more people able to study these problems, it will make science more accessible, something that has not been the case for a while.  I think this will greatly help to advance the field and our understanding of the world’s oceans.

How will your research make a difference in people’s lives?
My research aims are twofold.  First, I aim to understand the underlying physical principles that determine how the ocean oceans.  Second, I am developing computer models to aide people in their own scientific investigations.  Better understanding the basic physics of the ocean can help to understand how the currents are changing and what we might expect because of the changing climate.

What advice would you give to young researchers?
Question everything and let your curiosity lead you into new and exciting directions. Also, learn to use computational techniques since this is becoming one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to do theoretical investigations.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
For most of my primary school I was a very poor student. I remember that one term in grade 8 my term grade in Science was 35%, my second lowest mark!  I didn’t do well in school because I didn’t appreciate the opportunities that were right in front of me and didn’t work.  In grade 9, I had a Social Studies teacher that taught me to ask questions and want to learn.  Since then I have had a passion for learning.  This is something that I have worked very hard to teach to my students.  I suppose my greatest achievement so far might be inspiring students to want to learn more, and hopefully teach more as well.  Something that I hope they will pass along to the next generation.

What do you read?
I read science fiction, historical science and mathematics books, comic books and a whole lot more.

What natural talent would you like to be gifted with?
Infinite patience sounds pretty attractive right now.

What’s on your music playlist?
When I am by myself I often listen to 90’s alternative music. This includes the Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and much more. When I am with my daughter I am discovering more modern music that is covered by Kidz Bop, most recently that was Becky G. Fun but in a very different way.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?
Albert Einstein.  His brilliance revolutionized physics and he seemed to really care about the world.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
When I think about other career options I feel rather lost.  I fear I might be pretty bad at most other professions.

What do you like to do for fun?
I am learning to play classic guitar.  I am learning Karate with my daughter.  We are both yellow belts and slowly moving up.  I do Yoga on a weekly basis in hopes that I might be able to touch my toes again.  Also, I enjoy watching TV series and movies.  I run when I can.  To date I have done two half marathons, but that does not equal a marathon.  Something I hope to do sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Do you have a favourite motto/words to live by?
I believe it was Henry Ford who said, “If you don’t think you can do something, you are right.”

Having an optimistic attitude may not guarantee success but it can only help.  I don’t always succeed at what I try to do but I always start to think maybe I can, and sometimes I’m right.