University student awarded Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Bachelor of Science student Benjy Smith has won the Prime Minister’s Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Ānamata Future Scientist Prize.

A young man stands holding a trophy with a government minister.

“It’s an incredible privilege,” Benjy says. “The calibre of all the other Prize winners was so high, so it’s an honour to be counted alongside them.”

The award comes with a prize of $50,000 to support tertiary education, which Benjy is putting towards his Bachelor of Science majoring in Physics and Computer Science at the University, with hopes of continuing down this path of physics research.

“The thing I like most about physics is that you can use the precise nature of mathematics to describe the real world and be able to predict what will happen using that.

“I’d like to continue exploring that—taking the chance to experience some of the opportunities available at university, and maybe going forward into a research career.”

Benjy was awarded the prize for his research into mathematically modelling the behaviour of twisted elastic bands—work that can be applied to many types of structural engineering.

He completed the work as part of the International Young Physicists’ Tournament last year, when he was still a Year 13 student at Onslow College, supported by academics from the University.

Presented with a problem at the Tournament, Benjy decided to investigate how elastic bands acted when twisted or stretched and built a device to measure their pull and resistance. He found that the current mathematical models used to predict measurements either don’t work or are limited.

“This area of research can apply to many structural engineering situations, such as bungee jumping and construction cranes. If we could predict the behaviour of these materials to prevent fatigue or breaking, it would be very advantageous.”

Professor Ben Ruck, Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, helped support Benjy through his preparation for the Tournament—although he admits Benjy is already working incredibly independently. Professor Ruck says he is a very deserving young man.

“He has an immense talent for physics. His project involved complex experimentation and comparison to some very advanced theory—I remember reading the draft of his project report and being absolutely blown away.”

Benjy joins a long list of Onslow College students who have both been awarded the Future Scientist Prize and gone on to study at Te Herenga Waka, including Finn Messerli, Catherine Pot, and Stanley Roache. Each of them was mentored by past Onslow College teacher Kent Hogan, without whom Benjy says he could not have done it.

“He’s been my mentor for the past five years, and has provided incredible support for my interests.

“Finn and Catherine both helped with my project, providing invaluable feedback and assistance, and so did Izzy Bremner, who is a research assistant in the Faculty.”

Benjy is now nearly halfway through his first year at Te Herenga Waka—but he’s already doing 200-level papers, as last year he was able to complete 100-level papers at the University through the STAR programme.

Professor Ruck says Benjy was a perfect candidate for the programme.

“STAR enables secondary school students to enrol in university courses while they are still at school in collaboration between our lecturers and their teachers. It’s a great programme that allows advanced students like Benjy to stay engaged in the subjects they’re passionate about, particularly if they’ve already finished the NCEA curriculum.”

Benjy himself says the programme has been very useful.

“It’s a way to quickly get a higher-level understanding of a wide range of physics concepts, which, particularly for the physics competitions I’ve been involved in, is really good to have.”