Tim McInerney

Humble Assessment Beginnings Leads to PhD Seminar Success

6th June 2019

The School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) would like to wish a big congratulations to Tim McInerney, who recently finished his seminar on ‘The Genetics of Genghis Khan and The Mongol Empire’.

McInerney is a PhD Scholar in the Easteal Lab at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research. His seminar analysed the validity of the seminal 2001 Zerjal et al. work, ‘The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols’, and other publications that are for and against the claims of this paper.

The seminar was on the 8th of May at the Mongolia Institute, and was a big success with a large student and staff turn out from across the university. Special guests included members of the Mongolian Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

McInerney reflected on the PhD Seminar; “It went really well and the feedback I got was that I could explain these fairly complicated topics well enough that people got the picture. I got heaps of questions after and it seems that it is a really exciting overlap of these two fields (history and genetics). Getting that great feedback and people showing interest, I’m glad that it wasn’t just a dud with an interesting title.”

The topic of his research started off in the CHL course ASIA2016: The Mongol Empire in World History that was taught by Li Narangoa. McInerney took this course while studying a Bachelor of Arts that with a major in Ancient History, which he started in 2012.

The widely cited quote of ‘1 in 200 men are descended from Genghis Khan’, became an inspiration for him. While studying this course, McInerney analysed this topic in an oral presentation assessment. “My oral presentation was on this topic as it covered two great loves of mine – human evolutionary genetics and Mongolian History,” McInerney said.

He did so well in this assessment that he was invited back by Narangoa after his undergraduate degree, to expand the topic into a full guest lecture for the course. The lecture covered the infamous Genghis Khan factoid and explained how researchers got to this conclusion.

Researchers had looked at Y chromosomal (male) DNA markers in about 2000 Asian men, all across Eurasia. In doing so, they found that most particular Y chromosomal lineages were located to single regions. However, there was one that originated from Mongolia that had an 8% frequency, all across Eurasia (which is unusually high). This was linked to the Great Khan through dating and aging techniques, whilst still accounting for natural selection.

This genomic data helps support historical narratives from Persian sources about the destruction the Mongol invasions caused, and the genetic material that backs up these claims. It seems that as the Mongol armies spread through these areas, there was a reduction to the genetic diversity of the conquered peoples, (which happens when a village is raided), while Mongol men experience a rapid increase in their genetic diversity.

“The purpose of this talk was to say, instead of just throwing out these factoids, you have got this really good information in the patterns of genetic diversity… Finding historical truth using empirical data that is written in our DNA,” McInerney said.

The combination of science and human history in studies like Zerjal et al. (2001) inspires his own PhD research, here at ANU. His research divides the genomes of human populations into contiguous genomic regions, whose markers describe a congruent pattern of relationships with the goal of analysing the evolutionary history of these regions. A process called meiotic recombination means that DNA sites will have their shared pattern of inheritance broken, leading to multiple (ie 100,000s) of independent realisations of the evolutionary history of the population under investigation.

His test population is the Han Chinese population in Beijing, from the 1000 Genomes Project Phase 3 dataset. Some outcomes of this can be used to see if these are putative sites of natural selection and possibly localise where in these genomes, may be disease.

In talking about his approach to research, McInerney said; “Historians have this toolkit which they can use to get to this historical truth, whether that be primary sources or archaeological evidence. But there is this genetic information where you can have a look at patterns of genetic diversity in existing populations. It tells a story, and it’s quite interesting.”

McInerney has an inspiring story of his undergraduate study. His journey took some turns, as he tried to find what was right for him. He moved courses from a Bachelor of Arts originally, to a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies.

After experimenting with some additional courses, he found his niche by landing on a double Bachelor degree of Asia-Pacific Studies/Science. It is inspiring to see someone that can have trouble with choices and path at University, and not only turn it to their advantage to find their passion, but to pursue it further.

“I guess it is something that anyone is going to experience going through university, sometimes you hit a bit of a rut. It’s unfortunate, but the ANU offers these double degrees for this reason,” McInerney explained.

He found a lot of cross-over of complimentary material between these two degrees. That the Bachelor of Asian Pacific Studies is a great place to study language and history, and combine it with other study options.

When discussing the combination of his study, he said; “These passions of mine, these aren’t separate fields. They might be separate ways of learning, and separate ways of going about academia, but they are not mutually exclusive.”

In this double degree he studied other CHL courses which also inspired him to further pursue his love of Asian history. These included ASIA2044 Chinese History: The Imperial Period (221BC-1800), taught by Mark Strange; ASIA3051: Archaeology in Asia, taught by Hsiao-Chun Hung; and other courses by Michael Schimmelpfennig.

These lecturers and course topics were instrumental in not only sparking McInerney’s interest in these topics, but also reinvigorating his want for study in general.

Reflecting on his journey overall, McInerney said; “I believe I was very privileged to study a double degree in Asia Pacific Studies and Science, as it offers context and insights into the broader world that I don’t think you can get if you do a single degree. I cannot recommend doing a double degree in Asia Pacific Studies and Science enough.”

Find out more about the Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies, here.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster