For a start, he’s a committed member of his local church, an outspoken advocate for both science and social issues, and, to
TOP it all, is the gene-editing spokesperson and Dunedin candidate for The Opportunities Party (aka TOP) in the 2020 General Election. He’s also studied philosophy, theology, management and maths on the way to earning his PhD in Biochemistry, which he now teaches at Otago.
Yet his seeming interest in anything and everything does have a central focus: improving human welfare.
“What drives me is goals-based problem solving,” he explains. “How can we fundamentally help human beings?”
It’s what drew him to biochemistry in the first place (that, and a liking for the “fancy name” when he first heard his two favourite school subjects, biology and chemistry, combined). In Ben’s view, to truly understand human beings, we must first understand the basis of life itself.
“The thing that really excites me [about molecular biology] is the level of understanding that this gives us for solving human problems – like when medicine applies the findings of biochemistry and genetics.”
Yet according to Ben, health isn’t the only area where such science can help “solve problems that affect people in a detrimental way”. For example, Ben points to environmental concerns such as pollution and climate change, and asks whether we could use gene-edited crops to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, say, “or use designer microorganisms to consume plastic waste”
This also explains his interest in politics.
“The reason why we’re not equipping scientists to solve problems is because we have a political system that hasn’t featured scientists,” he reckons. But with the COVID crisis showing the crucial importance of scientific advice, Ben’s hopeful that the situation will improve.
Educating and informing people about science is, therefore, one of Ben’s major motivations; another is to highlight “all the diverse pathways that scientists can go into,” especially for school students thinking of studying science at Otago.
And for those that do, Ben encourages them to “take interest papers that give you a flavour a bit outside the norm”.
“It gets you in touch with other issues and rounds out your understanding,” he says. Who knows, it might also help to make the world a better place.
Written by Mick Whittle
Photos Supplied by Ben Peters