Four grad students collaborating together in front of a glass board

“Payback and pay-forward” – Cotton Family invests in youth science education at PI

account_circle By Colin Hunter
Grateful for the lives and careers they’ve enjoyed thanks to early exposure to science and math, Paul and Cathy Cotton have donated $50,000 to fuel Perimeter Institute’s GoPhysics! outreach program for high school students.

During a recent visit to Perimeter Institute, the sight of a blackboard filled with physics equations transported Paul Cotton’s imagination back to his childhood home.

“We had a blackboard about half this size in our kitchen,” he recalls, reminiscing about his family’s Thunder Bay home six decades ago. “I can clearly remember standing in that kitchen doing hard math problems with my mom as a child.” 

Paul’s mother, though not formally educated (her family could not afford the matriculation fee for final exams), taught herself the “new” mathematics so that she could teach her children. Paul has never forgotten the thrill of discovering mathematics with his mother at an early age, and is dedicated to helping young scientists-in-training experience the same thrill. 

That is one reason why Paul and Cathy have given generously to GoPhysics! – Perimeter Institute’s educational outreach program designed to get secondary school students engaged with and excited about science.


Paul believes the successes he enjoyed over his career – working at Microsoft, IBM, and various startups – can be traced back to the people who took an early interest in his penchant for math. Thanks to the education he received at his mother’s kitchen blackboard, he was excited and ready when Ralph Stanton, the University of Waterloo’s first mathematics professor, visited his high school and convinced him to enroll.

It was during that undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo that he met Cathy, a fellow undergrad who helped him pass the statistics course he was on the verge of flunking. They have been married for over 50 years; both their grown children work in math and science, and their three grandkids get excited to figure out fractions and run through multiplication tables.

Grateful for the opportunities they received to learn math and science, the Cottons are now committed to supporting science outreach for young Canadians. Their investment will enable Perimeter to present six GoPhysics! workshops at schools in remote and underserved areas of Canada.

“This is both a payback and a pay-forward,” says Paul. “We would like for other kids to be able to enjoy the same benefits we have.”

The Cotton family has previously invested in several scholarships in mathematics at the Univeristy of Waterloo – one in memory of Paul’s parents, another in memory of Cathy’s parents, a third honouring their daughters by supporting graduate studies of women in mathematics – and they have donated to the University’s Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing.

Supporting Perimeter Institute, they explain, was a natural progression of their desire to fuel ways for young people to get excited – and stay excited – about the possibilities of pursuing careers in science.

Determined that their daughters be educated in Canada as they were, the couple returned to Waterloo after decades of working in interesting locales from Chile to Myanmar to Tanzania. When Paul and Cathy learned that Perimeter Institute, just down the street from their home in Waterloo, hosted free monthly public lectures, they attended a talk about exoplanets and were hooked. Once they heard about the GoPhysics! program, which brings interactive science workshops to high schools in remote and underserved communities across Canada, they enthusiastically invested in the program.

“It’s important to us that Canada has a knowledgeable citizen base,” says Cathy, who employed her degree in statistics during a 35-year career at Statistics Canada. “We’re concerned about the amount of disinformation and manufactured facts. These types of science outreach programs will help create a more discerning population.”

For Paul, it’s gratifying to see curious young people gathered around a physics-filled blackboard like the one in his parents’ kitchen. 

“Having a place like Perimeter, which had the forethought to make outreach part of its programming, is amazing,” he says. “We are both very conscious of the benefit that we accrued from our education and degrees, so we’re interested in supporting STEM education in Canada, and supporting Canada’s role in the world.”

About PI

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement. 

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