Andrew Bennet & Theresa Kitos

It wasn’t the most romantic of weekends. Theresa Kitos had left icy Edmonton where she was working on a PhD to spend a few days with husband Andrew Bennet, one of SFU’s newest professors, who was setting up his laboratory in the Department of Chemistry. Like all young researchers, Bennet needed operating dollars. With a deadline for a major BC Health Research Foundation grant fast approaching, Kitos and Bennet put their heads together for a marathon weekend of work — getting the application in 30 minutes before deadline.

Kitos, who moved to Burnaby a year later to join her husband, becoming a sessional biochemistry instructor and researcher at SFU, has since become a fulltime Research Grants Facilitator, helping other faculty write grant applications to organizations like NSERC. Bennet, meanwhile, continues to teach while running an organic chemistry lab where his Bennet Group of undergraduates, grads and post-docs investigate rational drug design.

More than two decades since that hectic grant application weekend, Bennet and Kitos decided to extend a helping hand to young academics who — like most students — struggle to make ends meet while nurturing their career. As a result, the couple created the Barbara and James Bennet Scholars’ Endowment Fund, named in honour of Bennet’s parents, who grew up in England but had to forego academics due to the Second World War. Both left school at age 14 to learn a trade: Barbara a hairdresser and James a machinist who attended night school after the war to enter management at engineering companies. Bennet’s achievement — a PhD in chemistry from the University of Bristol in England — was an accomplishment beyond the reach or dreams of his parents.  

In 2015, SFU chemical biology graduate students and chemistry post-docs will be able to apply for one of two scholarships under the Bennet endowment. One is the Barbara and James Bennet Graduate Award in Chemistry for grad students. The other is the Barbara and James Bennet Travel Award for Post-doctoral Fellows in Chemistry. The competition for graduate students opens in May while post-docs can apply in March. “There’s a lot of pleasure in giving,” says Kitos, who spends her free time with Bennet hiking in the mountains and painting landscapes to hang on the walls at home. “We could spend the money on an extravagant holiday, but we’re happy with a simpler lifestyle,” Kitos says.

Bennet’s early academic career at SFU received a leg-up thanks to public largesse, inspiring him and Kitos to create the endowment fund. He is optimistic that, by providing award monies to students and post-docs, they will not only be motivated academically but inspired down the road to pay it forward. “Hopefully if you win awards from scholarships, then later on you’ll give back,” Bennet says.