Donohue wins national 3-Minute Thesis competition

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western Biochemical Engineering student Joseph Donohue has won the top prize at Canada’s National 3-Minute Thesis competition (3MT), a research communication competition where graduate students have three minutes or less to present their research and its impact to a panel of non-specialist judges and peers. After advancing from Western’s 3MT to the provincial championships, Donohue competed against 10 other semi-finalists in the National 3MT last month at Concordia University, organized by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS).

His presentation, Scale-up of a circulating fluidized-bed bioreactor to treat municipal wastewater, showcased a new approach to the problem of overloaded sewage treatment facilities in isolated communities, thoroughly engaged the competition judges, who included John Polanyi, Nobel laureate; Kady O’Malley, CBC journalist; and Doug Peers, University of Waterloo dean of arts.

“Joseph’s presentation not only showed excellent academic rigour, but his work attempts to solve a real-world problem,” said Noreen Golfman, CAGS president. “The judges were impressed by his ability to engage them in a complicated biochemical process and the impact of its eventual application.”

Co-supervised by Chemical and Biochemical Engineering professors Jesse Zhu and George Nakhla, Donohue and his proposed system build upon conventional sewage treatment systems that leverage bacteria swimming through the water to remove waste. Rather than swimming, Donohue’s bacteria grow on small surfaces suspended in the water – such as sand, rocks or, most recently for Donohue, small plastic particles – where they can get much larger and remove more waste in a smaller space.

He is currently building smaller reactors on the bed of a semi-truck trailer, which can be transported to specific locations, reducing the need for large conventional sewer treatment facilities. The concept holds promise for use in densely populated areas that lack space for large facilities or in remote communities lacking infrastructure.

In addition to a cash prize of $1,500, Donohue will attend the CAGS Annual Conference in St. John’s, N.L., in October.