Q and A with Nicholas Benson - Governor General's Silver Medal winner

The Faculty of Science is pleased to present to Nicholas Benson, the Governor General’s Silver Medal.

Nicholas is graduating with a Bachelor of Science Combined Honours in Computer Science and Mathematics, where he earned the highest possible grade point average of 9 out of 9.

Nicholas Benson at JCURA 2016.

1. What made you decide to major in Computer Science and Mathematics?

In high school (and introductory calculus) math courses, I'd memorized machinery for solving certain problems, but in the summer of my first year, in Math 222, I encountered actual math. In my opinion, math is the art of crafting logically indisputable answers to interesting questions. It’s unlike other arts in that every ingredient of your solution can be logically verified, and there is always a correct answer. But it is like other arts in that two people may approach the same question in very different ways; you often appreciate the beauty of a proof you would never have created yourself. Also there is little need for memorization - the most important thing is experience, getting a “feel” for the topic.

After that summer, I took mostly math, and kept enjoying it, but Ruskey's CSC 326 and 428A made me realize how mathematically elegant and fun algorithms can be, and King's CSC 423 and 482A made me realize how many fascinating questions can be asked in theoretical computer science.

2. What were some of the highlights of your UVic academic program?

I’m glad I went to UVic. Since it’s a small school, you can get to know your professors, and they have time and care to engage in research with interested undergrads. One of the most enjoyable mental activities during my degree was preparing for the Putnam with Peter Dukes, discussing problem-solving strategies, elegant math problems, my inelegant solutions, etc; and my interaction with Peter led to my first USRA.

Another highlight of my degree was my participation in the UVic Programming Club (and briefly leading it). The club is a place for mentally adventurous people to brainstorm about competitive programming problems, which are basically algorithm puzzles. I greatly enjoyed the atmosphere; the sound of a dozen people excitedly chatting about their ideas is unforgettable. Attending the annual ICPC competition in Vancouver was also fun.

Research was another highlight of my degree. It’s nice to be able to do math, or theoretical computer science, without assignments and deadlines, just thinking, and learning from (and with) your supervisor.

3. Did you take part in any research opportunities (Honours, Directed Studies, etc.)?

I did a USRA with Peter Dukes (Math), then a USRA and JCURA with Kieka Mynhardt (Math), then a directed studies with Frank Ruskey (CSC), then an honours project with Valerie King (CSC). Each of these was great fun, and I got to enjoy a variety of topics.

4. Are there any other awards or commendations that you received (either academic or non) in your time at UVic?

Rank 266 in the 2013 Putnam, won the UVic math competition on my first and last attempts (2013, 2016).

5. What were some of your extracurricular activities?

Badminton, classical guitar, programming club, audio management at my church.

6. What are your future plans both for the coming year and the future?

This summer I started a Masters in theoretical computer science at UVic under Dr. King, where I’ll study some interesting questions we found during my honours project, research other areas of theoretical computer science, and attend conferences; hopefully honing my interests. After that I hope to do a PhD at another mathematically interesting theoretical computer science group. I would also like to try a work term at Google along the way.

7. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I’d like to thank

my high school teachers and pastor, for demonstrating that one can be logically-minded and Christian;

my father, for his support throughout my degree;

Peter Dukes and Frank Ruskey, for inspiring and facilitating my fascination with their respective fields.

I’d also like to thank my delightful girlfriend who helped me edit this.