Tim McInerney at the John Curtin School of Medical Research

Tatts all, folks: Graduate leaves ANU with more than just a PhD

Tatts all, folks: Graduate leaves ANU with more than just a PhD

Tim McInerney at the John Curtin School of Medical Research

It was during the early years of his education that Tim McInerney backed himself to one day graduate with a PhD. 

As a young and inspired Year 12 student in 2010, the Canberra local had three words printed on his school’s graduating year commemorative jumper: “DR. MCINERNEY PHD”. 

Fast forward 14 years, Tim can now use those three words regularly after graduating with a PhD from the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University on Wednesday, 10 July 2024. 

His thesis, titled “Identification of haplotype blocks using character-compatibility analysis and inference of deep human history”, looks at human genetic diversity. 

Tim McInerney at the John Curtin School of Medical Research

Dr Tim McInerney with his Year 12 high school jumper, with the words DR. MCINERNEY PHD on the back. He has now graduated with a PhD, looking at human genetic diversity. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

“Everyone has seen figures of the tree of life, and how we’re all related to each other – humans on one branch, dogs and cats on another, fish on another branch, trees and bacteria on yet another, but realistically, it’s not as simple as that,” Tim said. 

“There’s not a single tree that can explain how we’re all related, particularly when you look within a species.  

“It’s better to look at it like a garden of trees, where a given population might have anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 different trees. Each one of those trees is an independent realisation of the evolutionary history of our species, and shows that we’re related to each other in many different ways.  

“What my PhD was doing, was taking population datasets of humans, and trying to partition the genome into haplotype blocks, where all the DNA in those blocks descended from a single common ancestor and seeing if I could more accurately identify those blocks compared to existing methods. I then built evolutionary trees from each of those blocks to understand the deep evolutionary history of those populations.” 

Tim’s PhD hasn’t come without sacrifice.  

After procrastinating his way through the end of his postgraduate studies, a close friend spurred him into action, suggesting a bet to encourage Tim to finish his PhD before he turned 30. 

“It basically got to a point where he said: ‘if you can complete your PhD by the time you’re 30, I’ll get a tattoo of your name on my butt, but if you don’t get it done by the time you’re 30, you need to get a tattoo of my name on your butt.’  

“And I lost that bet – thanks for that, Lachlan. But the PhD is complete.” 

As an avid history buff, Tim said understanding how deep human history was had been an exciting finding from his research. 

“I guess that’s why I did an evolutionary biology degree here at JCSMR. 

“I view evolution as just a really deep history. I don’t see the difference – the genome is interesting – if you can read the genome, it’s just another language that’s recorded the history of not only our species but every other species on the planet. 

“So I think the most exciting thing I discovered during my PhD was that, on average,  these human evolutionary trees find their last common ancestor roughly 1.5 million years ago, which is much older than the 200,000-300,000 years age of the first anatomically human fossils. 

“That for me was quite special. Being able to confirm that was really, really special.” 

Tim will celebrate with family on graduation day - “a dinner out with good food and drink” - before spending a long weekend in Sydney with his partner.  

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Updated:  11 July 2024/Responsible Officer:  Science Web/Page Contact:  Science Web