Engineering student wins Three Minute Thesis competition

Western graduate students competed against the clock – and against each other – at the annual Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT) last week.

Hosted by the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, roughly 20 student competitors from all faculties squared off in preliminary heats to present their research in as accessible manner as possible in less than three minutes to an audience of judges and peers. The finals were held last week in Davenport Theatre.

The winner, Joseph Donohue, an Engineering master’s student, will represent Western at the provincial championships on April 24 in Hamilton.

The goal of the 3MT competition is to help graduate students develop communication skills to effectively explain their research to an intelligent – but non-specialist – audience.

The competition grew out of an event held by the University of Queensland in Australia, and has now been adopted by numerous universities, leading to the development of an international competition in 2010. Western was one of the first Canadian universities to host a 3MT competition in 2012.

Below are the top three winners from last week’s competition.

Beyond the top three, Oluwakemi Ola, Computer Science, won the People’s Choice Award for her project, A synergistic approach to evidence-based vector-borne disease decision making.


Joseph Donohue, First place
Masters student, Chemical and Biochemical Engineering
Scale-up of a circulating fluidized-bed bioreactor to treat municipal wastewater

Donohue proposes a new – and more localized – way of thinking about wastewater treatment.

The basic difference between his system and a conventional one is that, in a conventional system, the bacteria (responsible for cleaning the water) are essentially ‘swimming’ through the water in order to find food (waste) that they use to grow. In his system, the bacteria grow on small surfaces – like sand, rocks or bits of plastic – and, using pumps, he suspends the bacteria inside the system (simulating swimming).

Because the bacteria are grown on the rocks, they can get much larger than they could by swimming, which means they can remove more waste in a smaller amount of space. Because of this feature, Donohue can reduce the size of the reactor needed to treat the same volume of water. The reactors he is working on now are built in the bed of a semi-truck trailer, allowing him to transport to site-specific locations, reducing a need for sewer infrastructure and a big treatment facility.

This ‘localized’ approach for water treatment could be very useful to densely populated cities that don’t have space to build a large facility or remote communities that lack a sewer network.

Watch Donohue’s presentation at:



Joshua Lee, Second place
PhD in Health and Rehabilitation Science
When Survival Mechanisms Go Bad: The Transition from Acute Pain to Chronic Pain

Lee wants to study pain in an interdisciplinary way, taking into account all of its clinical aspects.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the underlying biological mechanisms and some of the psychological mechanisms, to sort of put that all together, to make a profile of pain, if you will,” he said.

Whereas classically, pain has been studied one system at a time, Lee’s research looks at pain from a systems biology perspective. “Basic science would look at maybe one protein, or one kind of element in the cell. We’re trying to look at everything in a holistic perspective and look at different dysfunctions that happen between the immune, the endocrine and the nervous system, all together,” he added.

Lee is also introducing a psychological backdrop, looking at differences between personalities, coping mechanisms and cultural values to get a comprehensive picture of pain.

Watch Lee’s presentation at:



Sean Miletic, Third place
Masters student, Biology
Molecular Pharming: Plant-made vaccines to prevent shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli (STEC) outbreaks

It’s not uncommon to hear of an E-coli (Escherichia coli) contamination in our food supply, and a lot of the contamination comes from cattle, Miletic explained. “But if we can vaccinate cattle, we can reduce contamination in our food,” he said.

Miletic is using plants to produce proteins in order to develop an E-coli vaccine – an economic, safe and efficient approach to the solution. Plants carry no diseases, as human or animal pathogens can, and are capable of producing relatively complex proteins needed for a vaccine.

Watch Miletic’s presentation: