Benjamin Patrick at the Casey research station.

Ormond alumnus Benjamin Aeneas Patrick wakes on a small, rocky outcrop on the edge of the ice cap on east Antarctica, and the bay that stretches out below his living quarters is frozen over with metre-thick sea ice. Over a video link from his desk, he shares that a blizzard is building outside, wild winds hurling loose snow, and visibility is scarce.

“But on a clear morning, we have the most beautiful sunrises, and as the sun swoops low across the horizon it throws amazing light on the icebergs,” he says.

Patrick leads Australia’s largest Antarctic research station, Casey, and will be based on the world’s coldest continent until December.

During summer, as scientists and researchers descend on the settlement of “colourful, Lego block-esque buildings perched on a little promontory”, his workplace is a hive of activity as visitor numbers swell into the hundreds.

But just as vital is the work Patrick’s core team undertakes over winter to maintain the station – upgrading infrastructure, servicing vehicles and laying the groundwork for the next influx of scientific minds.

“The Australian Antarctic Program delivers a huge range of really interesting science,” Patrick says. “For me, being able to play a role in enabling these programs to get out and achieve their scientific outcomes is the great reason for being here.”

Team Casey in Antartica. Credit: Jeff Teda.

Close encounters with wildlife, especially the cute, waddling kind, comes a close second, he jokes. “It can never be a bad day if you’re watching penguins, and there is some wonderful seabird research that goes on.

“There is also some really impressive physical science, such as the million year ice core project, where scientists are trying to establish a climate record back for one million years to help us better understand what’s going on with the planet. Supporting projects like that is incredibly motivating.”

Patrick studied Geology and meteorology in a Science degree as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, when he lived at Ormond.

“Ormond provided a wonderful home, steeped in history. The shared experience of College life in such formative years forged friendships which are still with me today, and across the world.” he says of his time at the College. “I’ve already planned a few catch-ups on my return from Antarctica.”

He first fell for the remote beauty of Antarctica in 2000, during a summer season working as a glaciologist at Davis, another of Australia’s three permanent research outposts.

“I remember being struck by how there was every imaginable shade of blue in the surrounding landscape,” he says. “It was always a dream of mine to return.”

Embracing a spirit of adventure

The experience also taught Patrick that his adventurous spirit craved varied challenges, and so began more training and 13 years’ service in the Australian Defence Force. He specialised with the Royal Australian Engineers in mapping, remote sensing and surveying. On leaving Defence, he leveraged his operational experience into management consultancy roles.

He was deployed to East Timor, dealing closely with local government officials, then served twice in Afghanistan working alongside Afghan security forces. Patrick credits his time in the Army as solidifying his values.

“These trips were amazing opportunities to develop empathy and an understanding of peoples’ places in the world. I got to learn and experience the culture from the locals. I also learned about myself and recognised a lot of the privilege I carry in my life, the fact of my education and my opportunities.”

While still in uniform, Patrick returned to the university to study a master’s degree in public and international law, to better navigate his defence work.

“I started with humanitarian law to make sense of my military time,” he says. “Then, as my subjects progressed, I pivoted to environmental law, which nicely ties in with the front seat I’ve got here at Casey.”

Empowering scientists to achieve their best

For all the uniqueness of his environment, he says his work at Casey is all about being a great manager and empowering the station’s team leaders to develop their people.

“Everyone needs something a little different to be able to do that, and understanding people is a central theme.”

While his career trajectory may not have been linear, Patrick can identify the connecting threads – an interest in people and the welfare of the planet, predominantly – which also bind his years of volunteer work with Disaster Relief Australia.

So, does he identify foremost as a scientist, a humanitarian or an administrator?

“Perhaps ‘problem-solver’?” he wonders. “Or simply, a ‘curious person?’ I have learned throughout my career that you’ve got to be curious, and curious about other people.

“There are many smart people out there who are coming up with the ideas to help us treat the planet better . . . I want to support the implementation of science and technologies which will preserve and restore our planetary ecosystems.”

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