In 2014, Western Biochemical Engineering student Joseph Donohue entered the national 3-Minute Thesis Competition, originally developed at the University of Queensland, Australia to give graduate students just three minutes to explain the breadth and significance of their research project to a non-specialist audience.
Donohue presented a new method of solving the issue of overloaded sewage treatment facilities in isolated areas – and walked away with the top prize.
“[Western Engineering Professor] Jesse Zhu encouraged me to enter,” explained Donohue. “I was a little self-conscious but just him having faith in my ability pushed me into that new experience.”
Donohue, who grew up in Sudbury and received his undergraduate Engineering degree at Laurentian University, didn’t necessarily plan to enter the waste water industry. But, a visit to Western during the search for graduate schools changed that.
“I knew I was interested in anything other than mining and that’s tricky when you’re from Sudbury,” he said. “I met with Professor Zhu and he started talking to me about waste water treatment. I didn’t have any background in water and no real understanding of what it actually took to treat water, but the project they were working on went beyond the lab. That really intrigued me.”
The project that captured his attention involved scaling down the infrastructure required to adequately treat waste water. In a normal treatment plant, Olympic sized swimming pools are typically used to treat water. The goal was to shrink those swimming pools to the size of a deep freeze freezer.
Donohue enrolled in the Masters program at Western, specializing in Biochemical Engineering. He had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest professors who are innovating in this field. “It was quite an experience right out of the gate,” he said. “The emphasis is on problem solving and learning things on your own. If something breaks, you learn how to fix it.”
While at Western, Donohue had the opportunity to travel to China with Dr. Zhu in an effort to take the research out of the lab and into the community. Working with the Chinese Academy of Science, they tested the system on a large apartment building. Water conditions are different in China with huge cities generating a large amount of waste. Ultimately, the system developed by Donohue’s team worked very well under those extreme conditions which meant it would work in smaller communities like London.
Bacteria is necessary to treat water – no matter how much or how little. Very precise conditions are necessary to keep bacteria happy and active and this requires constant attention. Tired of spending nights in the lab, Donohue developed a computer the size of a credit card which could be programmed to work independently. The computer could take readings, log data and have remote access to the computer so those working on the project don't have to spend endless hours in the lab.
After graduation, Donohue joined EOSi, a Massachusetts based company that produces a green chemical for waste water treatment. In his role as Process Automation Engineer, he makes an automated system for treating water with an eco-friendly product. The system, which he calls the ‘Goldilocks System’, adds just the right dose – not too little, not too much – to treat the water without polluting the environment.
For Donohue, his experience at Western could not be more practical: “It’s about going out in the field and working with industries and factories and systems. Problem solving and my ability to communicate helps move any company forward.”
Donohue isn’t the only Western Engineering graduate employed at EOSi. Mehran Andalib, Ph.D’88 is Vice President of Process Solutions and Programs and Sara Arabi, Ph.D’04 is a Senior Process Engineer/Corporate Sales Manager.
“I was pushed and challenged at an academic level at Western,” said Donohue. “In any social scenario, the first question that comes up is always: ‘What do you do. I'm passionate about what I do and to be able to explain it is always exciting.”
To view video of Joseph Donohue’s Three Minute Thesis presentation, click here.