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Prof Potvin outside of the Engineering Building at UBC Vancouver
March 12, 2020
4 mins read

Prof Portrait: Gabriel Potvin

Prof Portraits

Dr. Gabriel Potvin is an engineer and a faculty member in the Educational Leadership Stream, which means he specializes in teaching and developing curricula and educational resources!

Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE) within the Faculty of Applied Science, Dr. Potvin has lots of experience giving great advice as an educator. We meet in his office in the Engineering Building on a sunny afternoon.

Life as a student

Dr. Potvin completed both his undergraduate degrees and Ph.D. (in Bioprocess Engineering) at the University of Ottawa. He followed the Engineering route “a bit by accident,” initially choosing to study Biopharmaceuticals in his undergrad because of his interest in personalized medicine. 

But in the first week of his first year, Dr. Potvin came across the program pamphlet that would shift his trajectory. “I saw my program, Biopharmaceuticals, which was a conventional 4-year program. I turned the page and read about the Biotechnology program, where students would do a degree in Honours Biochemistry and a degree in Chemical Engineering at the same time over 5 years.”

Although Dr. Potvin didn’t know much about engineering at the time, he decided to go for Biotech. “I told myself that I was only going to go to university once. I might as well go for the bigger challenge. And Biochemistry has always been fascinating to me—it’s interesting to look at how living things work at a fundamental level.”

Prof Potvin in his lab at UBC Vancouver

But the road wasn’t always smooth, Dr. Potvin recounts. “Engineering programs are very work-intensive, especially when pursuing 2 concurrent degrees. I had some semesters where I had double full-time loads, and it was rough. It required lots of self-discipline and a real desire to put myself through the program.”

Growing up, Dr. Potvin was “raised to have the mentality that if you’re going to do something, you do it to the best of your ability, you do it well, and you get it done, even if—and maybe especially if—it's not easy.” It was that mindset that guided him through—and beyond—his undergrad.

Inspiration for his students

Whereas most profs focus on technical research (as part of the Research Stream Faculty), Dr. Potvin is more involved with the education side of academia. His interest in teaching and pedagogy comes from his days as a Ph.D. student, when he taught courses and volunteered his time to give close to 200 presentations at elementary schools and high schools to “get young people interested in science and engineering.” 

At the moment, he is working on:

  • overseeing the Jump Start program for Applied Science (APSC),
  • contributing to CHBE and APSC outreach initiatives,
  • applying Problem-Based Learning in his fourth-year labs, where students design their own experiments in open-ended projects,
  • and, as the Chair of the APSC stream in Vantage College, supervising and administering its programs.

Beyond those activities, Dr. Potvin conducts pedagogical research in engineering education, and works to improve programs and courses and keep them up to date. This includes making tweaks by adding modules, redesigning an entire curriculum—and even creating new courses!

In the 2020-21 academic year, Dr. Potvin will be co-teaching APSC 367/POLI 371 (Humanitarian Engineering: Politics & Practice) with Dr. Jenny Peterson, a colleague in Political Science. This new interdisciplinary course will involve Engineering, Political Science, and International Relations students working together to solve complex problems and investigating solutions to humanitarian aid in and outside Canada.

The course came about in a unique way. In the 2016-17 academic year, a CHBE student with humanitarian relief experience approached Dr. Potvin with ideas for a Student Directed Seminar. This course would allow Engineering students to apply their skills to designing solutions to humanitarian issues.

Intrigued by the proposal, Dr. Potvin became a faculty sponsor, and the seminar ran in the 2017-18 academic year as an Engineering course. “We got it approved for credit towards Engineering degrees, and teams of students were partnered with NGOs working on real-world problems.”

From that experience, Dr. Potvin wanted to bring back the course for more students—and add in sociopolitical aspects, too. “A colleague in Political Science was also interested in getting engineers to work with political scientists. It’s a great opportunity to co-teach this class with someone with a different background, and I'm very much looking forward to the experience.” 

Some advice for you

With his expertise in engineering and in engineering education, Dr. Potvin offers some insights:

“Try not to see classes as 'This is a checkmark I need on my way to a degree,' or 'I have to do these assignments, and then I don't have to think about them anymore.'”

Actionable tips:

  • “Set objectives for yourself. There are resources for students. If you have difficulties or questions, go see your professors and TAs. That's why we're here.”
  • “Push yourself to learn beyond the requirements of the exam (which I know is easy to say) and actively participate in your education and training going forward. Engaging with the material in a larger context contributes to your understanding of how the world works and how these fundamental concepts interact with one another.”

“If you're just copying or mimicking methods, it won’t help when you're faced with new problems or in cases where there are curveballs.”

Actionable tips: 

  • “Always ask yourself if you understand the fundamental concepts, not just if you're able to solve a particular problem. Try to tie in what you're learning with everything else around you.”
  • “For science-related courses, relate a question to what’s really going on physically. For every line of calculation that you have, actively ask yourself, ‘Do I know why this is happening? What is this equation doing? What am I representing?”

“You’re going to have some subject matter that you're very interested in, and some that you’re not—and that's okay.”

Actionable tips:

  • “Trust that there’s a reason you’re covering a particular topic. Courses are not offered randomly.”
  • “Think of these subjects as opportunities for you to cultivate interest. How does this relate with your broader discipline? What will this knowledge allow you to do?”

No matter which faculty or program you’re in, get to know your profs. Many of them, just like Dr. Potvin, have interesting stories and insights to share!