Profile with Catherine Beaudry

Catherine Beaudry (Quebec and Trinity College 1992) is a Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Industrial Engineering of Polytechnique de Montreal.  Her research interests include innovation economics, networks, impact of science and technology, and regional innovation systems among others. Catherine holds a DPhil and MPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford and a BEng in Electrical Engineering with a specialization in Space Technology from Polytechnique Montreal.

Rhodes Project: What is your favourite thing to do in Montreal?

Catherine Beaudry: Wandering about downtown and in Old Montreal. I live just out of town and besides coming in to work, I like wandering through the streets, showing the sites to my children and visiting friends. Montreal is a very lively, cosmopolitan city. It’s probably the most “European” of all North American cities, after Quebec City; it has a flavour and effervescence that is kind of mid-Atlantic.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?

Catherine Beaudry: I wanted to be an astronaut. I was always a bit of a space cadet but I eventually came to my senses!  Apparently, I told my parents at age nine that I wanted to be an engineer, which turned out to be my first degree. The Rhodes Scholarship allowed me to change course with the MPhil in Economics.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job that you ever held?

Catherine Beaudry: I was a waitress when I was sixteen or seventeen, serving breakfast and brunch on weekdays and weekend mornings at a restaurant called the “Pain de sucre” (Sugar loaf) near the town where I lived then.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job currently?

Catherine Beaudry: The freedom of research and the excitement of discovery. I have the chance to use a multitude of approaches to study innovation. It is the combination of these approaches that leads to the most exciting findings. In addition, there is a great satisfaction in transmitting knowledge to students and in working with them on various research projects. Despite the fact that sometimes research can go nowhere, at other times all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and you make a great contribution to the way we understand how individuals and firms innovate.

Rhodes Project: What challenges do you see in channeling technological innovation for economic development?

Catherine Beaudry: I don’t think it is uniquely a technological challenge. We need to have a global and systemic approach to any challenge. My research examines how industry, academia and government work together to foster innovation and growth. While this is true for development, this approach is also true for any challenge we face. Take global warming for instance; there is so much that technology can do to help stop global warming. Social acceptance of the problem requires leadership, and implementation of solutions requires a consolidated approach. You need to have the policy makers on board, it has to make economic and environmental sense - it is not as simple as saying that technology will solve the problem. For any challenge, you need to have a completely global approach and this is something that we are trying to do at the Global Young Academy. Within the organisation we have a global systematic and systemic approach, with philosophers, sociologists, biologists, geologists, engineers, scientists and medics all working together on various projects. 

Rhodes Project: If there was one thing you could change about the way students learn math and science in schools today, what would it be and why?

Catherine Beaudry: I would contextualize it. A lot of students go into math and they hate it. They say, “Well, what’s the point? What am I going to use this for?”  You need to ground it in reality. There is no problem in the pedagogy aspect but it needs to be relevant. I think that it needs to be fun!

Rhodes Project: What is one thing that your students have taught you?

Catherine Beaudry: That sometimes you need to explain things in three different ways because different people understand things differently. They taught me patience as well. While my research seems like a continuum, students come and go along this continuum and it takes time for them to get acquainted with the knowledge developed prior to their arrival.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman getting into academia?

Catherine Beaudry: I would tell them to network. Networked we stand and divided we fall. This is so true in academia. There is no way you can survive if you don’t have different projects with different people; you cannot put all your eggs in one basket. All the knowledge learned from one project can often be of some use in another project. Research is all about knowledge transfer and knowledge mobilization. Don’t work alone and think that you can make it alone in academia. In addition, don’t get stuck in one discipline, go and pinch ideas from other disciplines and collaborate across disciplines. I don’t think the next generation will be stuck in the same silos as we are. “Collaborate” would be my motto for someone starting their career.

Rhodes Project: What do you do just for you?

Catherine Beaudry: In another life, before kids, I used to have time to play the violin. I now play occasionally just for me. Once you completely concentrate on the music, you don’t think about anything else and get absorbed by the music. Looking back, I think that the place where I had the most fun and I was the happiest was right in the middle of an orchestra playing my part of a piece of music. You’re contributing to the collective effort of making music. It is such a happy moment!

Rhodes Project: What motivates you?

Catherine Beaudry: Up until the end of my bachelor’s degree, I would say it was competition that motivated me. When I arrived at Oxford, it was something else. What motivates me now is the urge to do something that is useful. Before that it was all about ‘me’- I needed to be the best, I needed to be the top of my class, especially as a woman in an engineering school. Once I had proven that point, I moved on and I decided  I had to do something useful with all that knowledge. It’s now more about advancing society in my own little way. What I study now is innovation and how to make all those little pieces move forward to let innovation emerge and for it to be life changing or society changing. The goal of some of my research is to ensure that the firm that brings that change continues on and that technology brings social change and has an impact. What motivates me is the idea of my students passing and bringing forth new knowledge. 

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