Awarded young scientist takes science out of the lab

20 Sep 2013

Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) PhD student Tim Brennan is taking science out of the lab and into the community.

Mr Brennan understands the importance of explaining his research, involving the development of biofuels for jets at AIBN, based at The University of Queensland.

He explained the research so well, judges at UQ's 2013 Three-Minute Thesis Final named him runner-up and the audience made him the People’s Choice winner.

“I chat to non-scientist friends and people all the time about what I do in the lab and put it in a way they can understand and relate to,” Mr Brennan said.

“I think most students generally stick to the lab and struggle to communicate how their work impacts on the world around them.”

The Three Minute Thesis competition challenges students to strip away jargon and explain their research in a compelling way to a general audience within three minutes.

“What’s great about Three-Minute Thesis is that it engages students with the UQ community. I learned more in three minutes from my peers than I usually do from a 30-minute keynote lecture at a conference.”

During the various rounds of the competition, Mr Brennan explained his research with a simple visual: a picture of an orange.

As part of the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative, Mr Brennan is working with colleagues using sources such as sucrose from sugarcane to make renewable jet fuel.

His colleagues modify baker’s yeast to produce a synthetic form of limonene, the main component in orange peel oil, because it has excellent jet fuel properties.

Mr Brennan is developing strategies to stop limonene from killing yeast used in a fermentation process to produce the fuel.

“I reprogram yeast to try and make jet fuels instead of ethanol,” Mr Brennan said.

“I am genuinely interested in solving open-ended problems. My PhD studies provide an opportunity to ask questions and develop strategies to attack them.”

Mr Brenan said effective communication broke down barriers between scientists and the rest of the population.

“When you’re at a bar or a barbecue, you need to engage with the people around you. What you do for a living almost always comes up.

“People are genuinely interested in what we do in science and want to know more. I look at each day as a practice session to develop my skills and engage in the community.”

Mr Brennan expects his communication skills to be useful for a career in industry, either in running a company or helping businesses be more efficient.

“I want to take the problem-solving skills I’ve developed in science and apply them to helping businesses. The ability to communicate difficult ideas, whether they are scientific or not, clearly and concisely is key to progress.”

Visit the Three-Minute Thesis website at or watch Mr Brennan’s video here.