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Alumni Stories

Grads 2024: Jack Bell

As high school drew to a close, further study was the furthest thing from Jack Bell’s mind. Already a veteran performer with the Lieder Youth Theatre ACROBATIC Fire Show, he imagined his path was one of pyrotechnics and acrobatics. But unexpected health issues sparked a curiosity about medical mysteries – and awakened a passion for learning and research.

Last week, Jack graduated from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Medical Science, and a Chancellor’s Commendation – thanks to his GPA of seven, the highest possibly attainable.

And he’s now embarked on a new path: his honours year, in which he has joined the search for a cure for chronic Hepatitis B, a long-term liver infection.

Growing up in Goulburn, Jack didn’t enjoy high school. “It was the rigidity of it, the feeling that I was forced to be there,” he says.

“I was already part of the theatre company, and I really enjoyed doing everything from the choreography to running rehearsals. Leider’s specialty was a piece with performers diving through a hoop that was on fire! We had even taken a show on the road in the United States. Going to uni just wasn’t in my plan.”

Joining the theatre company when he was just 11, Jack started off with clowning events – “I really enjoyed juggling!” – and stilt-walking, before moving on to fire performances.

But then he started having medical issues with his knees.

“I initially put off going to the doctor, which made the problems worse,” he says. “Then I ended up undergoing a lot of tests, and also started looking things up on my own to see if I could get some answers.

“I found it really interesting that in 2020, there were still so many medical questions that hadn’t yet been answered or even explored by modern science – for a brief period, I was being tested for autoimmune diseases, and there are so many unknowns in terms of  what causes them.”

It turns out that it wasn’t studying that Jack didn’t enjoy – he just needed a way of learning that was flexible, autonomous and suited his naturally curious nature. His interest seriously sparked, Jack decided to go to medical school, and started his undergraduate course at UC’s Faculty of Science and Technology in 2021.

“I thought it was the only pathway I could take to answer some of these burning questions,” he says.

“But at the end of my second year, Michael Sydney, the First Year Science Co-ordinator, got me in touch with the research convenor for a unit I would have to take later, we had a chat about research pathways – and I found that I really enjoyed research.

“It’s about discovery, about ideas and the synthesis of knowledge – research highlights what we don’t know, and what we would like to learn, while highlighting the broader, bigger picture.”

From his first year, Jack found himself putting more effort into his studies than he had ever imagined possible.

“All the units I did were really interesting to me, and that made me want to focus,” he says. “The learning curve at uni was quite steep – in the first year, we just learned so much more on our own, it wasn’t prescriptive like in high school. And I liked that – making my own study choices made me more likely to put in the effort.”

In his first semester, Jack commuted between Goulburn and Canberra four times a week, as he wanted to stay on at his job in his hometown, and remain involved with the theatre.

“The commute was definitely unsustainable, and I moved to Canberra in my second semester,” he says. “At one point, I was working three jobs and studying full-time.”

When he attained a GPA of seven at the end of his first semester, Jack was shocked, excited – and a little nervous about maintaining it.

He found himself accessing Study Skills services quite a lot. “I was at every session of PALS,” he says, referring to UC’s Peer-Assisted Learning Sessions.

“And I found it really helpful to just email my unit convenors with any questions. They were very responsive and could clear the questions up immediately.

“A lot of my friends in the course were quite studious and wanted to do well, and that helped – we were all able to keep each other on track. Also, lots of coffee and energy drinks were consumed!”

Looking back on his uni experience, he has one message to the next student cohorts coming through, and it’s one of resilience – “The stress is worth it, don’t give up!”

In his final semester, Jack did a professional practice unit, working in the lab with Associate Professor Dr Xiaonan Zhang and his honours student Josh Coxhead. He enjoyed the experience so much that he took a deep breath and a leap of faith – to do an honours year himself.

“The more I’ve learned, the more I want to learn,” he says. “The opportunity for lifelong learning was one of the things that drew me to the postgraduate pathway, and to research itself.”

Xiaonan became Jack’s honours supervisor; Jack’s honours project will focus on continuing towards the end goal of finding a cure for an incurable disease.

Chronic Hepatitis B increases the risks of liver failure, liver cancer and cirrhosis, or severe scarring of the liver. In Australia, it’s a condition that disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who are three times more likely to develop the disease.

“As of 2021, 296 million people were infected with chronic Hepatitis B worldwide,” Jack says.

“For people infected with acute Hepatitis B, once the immune system clears the virus, they have immunity similar to if they were vaccinated. But that doesn’t happen if they are chronically infected, and there is no cure, only treatments.

“My work now focuses on purifying the surface antigen, the major part of the virus that the immune system identifies.”

Enjoying his present time in the lab – and the increased independence of the honours year – Jack is also envisioning a future PhD, likely with the same research group.

“I think I would enjoy being a researcher at a university, because I enjoy both research and teaching,” he says.

“When you teach the next generation of researchers, you have the chance to impart your own passion to them. And even if you affect the lives of only five people – infect them with that passion! – that’ll be worth it. That’s enough.”

Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, graduation photo by Liam Budge, fire show photo by Regan Pearse Photography.

The University of Canberra congratulates the graduating class of March 2024.

We are so glad to have been able to celebrate this milestone with you. You have overcome challenges with grace and resilience, and grown in remarkable ways.

Many of you are already making an impact in your chosen fields, and others have embarked on their postgraduate study path – we look forward to seeing what you achieve in these next steps in your amazing journeys.

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