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When the Chemistry's Right ...

Outstanding scholar.

These are the first two words inscribed on Ben’s epitaph. It may seem a strange way to have started the most important piece of writing I had ever committed myself to. Because Ben was never the bookish or highbrow type of intellectual that one might usually associate with that description.

Without in any way wishing to belittle those who devote themselves to academic pursuits, Ben was never a person, in all the time we have known him, who would have let study get in the way of life. And yet I have met few people who appreciated the power of knowledge more than he did, and even fewer whose intellect I admired more.

This was just one of the paradoxes that characterised the conundrum known as Ben. His capacity for carefree, and occasionally foolhardy behavior, uninhibited by convention, combined with his apparently inexhaustible thirst for learning – especially subjects based on time-honoured rules and principles, such as maths and physics.

If you were to track Ben’s academic results from the outset, these two words might seem like the exaggerated claims of a devoted but deluded parent with an unreliable memory. Yeah, sure, at school he received occasional recognition for his intellectual prowess – usually in a mathematical or scientific context; but we were far more likely to hear about his behavioural and bookwork deficiencies than his scholastic achievements.

When the National Assessment Programme – Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing rolled around every couple of years there would be glimpses of his true potential, with his ranking for the numeracy component of that assessment being consistently off the (top of the) chart.

He also managed three Distinctions in UNSW’s International Competitions and Assessments (two for Science and one for Mathematics) between Years 6 and 8 – proving, in case we had any doubt, that exams with multiple choice questions, and black and white right/wrong answers were smack bang in his wheelhouse!

But there was never any chance that schooling would distract Ben from the more pleasurable recreations life has to offer, especially activities that revolved around sport and socialising. By way of example, in 2009, in his final year at primary school, Ben represented his school in cricket, athletics, both tag and touch football, won the cross country championship, and appeared at a regional swimming carnival, and the national aerobics championships. He also received the Batting Award in his Club cricket team, and was named Players Player in his weekend soccer team. But notwithstanding all of those achievements his favourite memory of the entire year, as recorded in his School Yearbook, was an excursion to Canberra when “we stayed up really late and laughed until our sides hurt”.

Ben’s natural intelligence and confidence continued to sustain him through the early years of his time at high school, although marks in the high 80s (and even 90s) that were a feature of his reports through Years 7 and 8 had given way, in many cases, to marks in the 70s through Years 9 and 10 – especially in those humanities-based subjects where essay writing formed an essential element of the examination process. Who has time for essays when there are games to be played, and parties to attend?

So what did we make of all of this? Truth be told we never browbeat either of the boys about their academic results. We always figured they would find their own way when the time was right, and we certainly never believed the HSC mark represented the be-all and end-all of their teenage existence. We were so happy to see how engaged they were with all aspects of their lives that we never seriously contemplated cross-examining them about marks and grades.

So when Ben’s report halfway through Year 11 told us he had finished in the top ten in his class in just one of his subjects we figured – well, maybe he isn’t quite the genius we originally imagined him to be. But what did we have to complain about?

He had recently commenced a relationship with a young lady who would become the love of his life. His friends, including the beautiful Laura, were funny and vivacious and, even more importantly, incredibly supportive of one another. During the first part of 2014 he had also found time to obtain his First Aid Certificate, secure an appointment as Treasurer of the Student Representative Council, participate in a Barista Challenge, play in soccer premierships both at school, and with his local club, and secure part-time employment at Stadium Australia. What’s not to love with all of that?

Well, yes, this was also the year that the top knot emerged – leading to the nickname, Vince (short for Vincent van Gogh, because it looked like an inverted paintbrush sticking out the top of Ben’s head). But within a couple of short months he would receive a Leadership Award from our local MP, and be named the School’s Vice-Captain for the coming year – bye bye top knot (yes!) – and commit himself, with no input from us, to achieving a high enough ATAR to secure entry to an Advanced Science degree at Macquarie University.

Fast forward to the second half of Year 12, and it seemed we were right to have trusted our boy’s instincts about what was best for him. In his HSC Trial he would place in the top 4 in all but one of his subjects, and would be ranked first or second overall in English (standard), Mathematics and Chemistry. He would subsequently be recognised in the HSC Distinguished Achievers List for Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Mathematics Extension 1. And he would attain an ATAR (97.55) some way beyond what we had expected; one that would well and truly secure him a place in his chosen course.

Perhaps even more significantly, he would be included in the School’s Honour Book for his “outstanding all-round achievements in academia, sport, student leadership, and school and community-based service”, and the overwhelming majority of his teachers would pay tribute, in their final reports, not only to his scholarship, but to his development as a person.

Now I know full well there will be people reading all of this and thinking: OK, we hear what you say; here’s a young guy who has produced his best when it counted most, and good on him for doing that, and for maintaining balance in his life at the same time, but the fact is these are not the results of an intellectual giant.

And you’d be right. Ben achieved the 12th highest ATAR in his cohort at a comprehensive boys’ high school. We were extremely proud of his efforts, but we didn’t have any vicarious delusions of grandeur, believe me.

Which made the next three years so completely unexpected, and all the more stirring for that. Because it was during this period that the true essence of Ben’s intellectual gifts emerged. The part of him that said: When you give me something to learn and understand that I really connect with, something that has meaning, not only for me, but for the world around me, then I will perform at a level way beyond what might have been thought possible based on my history.

A fire had indeed been lit in Ben’s complex and extraordinary mind during his time at University; a fire that only a tragic and premature death could extinguish. But the transcript of Ben’s performances during the course of those three years of tertiary study remain for all to see.

21 subjects completed, with merit grades awarded in 19 of those. In those 19 subjects Ben would achieve 15 High Distinctions and 4 Distinctions. No Fails or bare Passes, not even a single Credit. Fifteen times Ben would receive personal letters from the relevant Heads of Department congratulating him on his “outstanding performance”, and assuring him High Distinctions are not handed out lightly.

During this period he would also receive the Le Fevre Memorial Prize for Physical Chemistry, the Le Fevre Scholarship (twice), and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Prize for the leading Macquarie University student in 300-level Analytical Chemistry. At the end of 2018 he would appear in the Macquarie University Merit List for having achieved the highest possible Grade Point Average of 4.0. And on 26 April 2019, despite still having three subjects remaining to complete his course requirements, Ben would be (posthumously) presented with a Bachelor of Advanced Science degree, along with the Macquarie University Award for Academic Excellence.

And there were compliments too for his extra-curricular work. The Deputy Head of the Department of Molecular Sciences at Macquarie University, demonstrating the sort of empathy and sensitivity with which large institutions are rarely credited, took time to write to us at length following Ben’s death ‑ including a summary of the research he had recently been carrying out under the guidance of Professor Ian Paulsen.

Ben had been invited to join this particular research group after expressing a passion for exploring cutting-edge biomolecular technologies, and solving real‑life clinical problems. The project in which the group was engaged involved searching for factors that make the human pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii resistant to multiple antibiotics. This bacterium affects people (like Ben’s older brother, Tim) with a compromised immune system, and its infections are a serious problem, particularly in hospitals, due to growing resistance to treatment by antibiotics. Specifically, Ben was working out the function of a number of potential resistance genes never before characterised from Acinetobacter baumannii, with a view to ensuring that various bacterial infections might be successfully treated in the future. The reports of Ben’s acumen and insight from the research team were glowing, and the genuineness of the sorrow expressed for his premature loss was palpable.

This information provided to us following Ben’s death about his time spent at University, much of it previously unknown, was a vindication of what I had instinctively always believed about him – that he was, in many ways, uncommonly brilliant.

Now I can accept and understand that it may seem pitiable to many for a father to champion his own dead son’s academic achievements. I really can. But if not me, then who?

You see for some time I had believed that with his unique combination of intelligence, charisma and passion Ben was destined to become a person who would influence the world in some significant positive way. I didn’t know exactly how, and I didn’t know exactly when, but I felt an inexplicable assurance that it would happen at some time in his apparently limitless future.

And the true sadness is not that I was wrong in that assessment, but that we, none of us, will ever now know if I was.


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