What does fear smell like? Love? Can we use scent to control behavior? Do humans really sense pheromones? What if you could diagnose diseases just by smelling them? And exactly how does our brain convert floating organic molecules into chemical signals that our brain processes as odor? Over hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors learned to encode specific scents with information that saved their lives. Many species still depend heavily on smell for their daily survival. Described as “the most direct pathway to the brain,” olfaction is subconscious, pre-cognitive, and emotional. We were joined by neuroscientists, chemists, artists, and radical scent designers for a “scent interactive” discussion about the fascinating science of smell and how it offers a powerful window into our brains, behaviors, emotions, and communication.
Emmy Award-winning Juju Chang is a co-anchor for ABC News. During her career at ABC News, she has been news anchor for Good Morning America, contributed to 20/20, reported for World News Tonight, and anchored the early morning newscasts of World News Now and World News This Morning. Chang’s most recent Emmy was for breaking news coverage of California wildfires. She previously won Gracie Awards for a 20/20 story on gender equality in the sciences and for a story about judicial activism on PBS and a Freddie Award for a series she hosted, also for PBS, called The Art of Women’s Health. She is married to Neal Shapiro and has three sons. Chang is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a founding board member of the Korean American Community Foundation.
Leslie B. Vosshall is a renowned neuroscientist seeking to understand how behaviors emerge from the integration of sensory input with internal physiological states.
Vosshall was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2008 and is a past recipient of awards from the John Merck, Beckman, and McKnight Foundations. She is the recipient of a 2002 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a 2005 New York City Mayor’s Young Investigator Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, a 2007 Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, the 2008 Lawrence C. Katz Prize from Duke University, and the 2010 DART/NYU Biotechnology Award.
Vosshall is currently the Robin Chemers Neustein Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at the Rockefeller University. She received an A.B. in Biochemistry from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Rockefeller University. She conducted postdoctoral training with Richard Axel at Columbia University and joined the Rockefeller faculty in 2000.
Photo credit – Allan Zepeda/AP, © HHMI
As a professional “in-betweener,” Sissel Tolaas’s work focuses on smell, language, and communication while spanning science, art, and industry. She has identified the smell molecules in worn coats and covered the walls of an MIT gallery with chemically reproduced molecules from the sweat of men who suffer fear attacks. Tolaas’s projects combine aspects of the academic, the offensive, and the surreal.
Tolaas has performed smell studies for companies including BBC Imagineering, Adidas, and the Sony Computer Science Lab. She has exhibited in museums like San Francisco MOMA, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow and the National Art Museum in Beijing and has spoken at academic institutions around the world including Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. At Columbia she presented the smell of communist East Berlin. Her research has won recognition through numerous national and international scholarships, honors, and prizes including the 2009 Rouse Foundation Award from Harvard University GSD and the 2010 ArsElectronica Award in Linz, Austria. The 2010 Synthetic Aesthetics Award from Stanford and Edinburgh universities included a residency at Harvard Medical School. In 2004, Tolaas established the RE_searchLab Berlin with support from International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc.
Consuelo De Moraes is an internationally known biologist and ecologist who studies the complex role of chemistry in interactions among plants and other organisms. She is particularly interested in understanding how olfactory cues emitted by plants convey sophisticated information about plant identity and condition (e.g., disease status) to organisms, insects, and other plants. Some of her previous work has examined the role of plant odors as foraging cues for parasitic plants. Her research has also investigated the mechanisms by which highly specialized predators locate plants under attack by the herbivore species on which they feed. Some of De Moraes’ current work focuses on identifying and understanding the characteristic changes in volatile chemistry that are associated with pathogen infection in plant and animal disease systems.
De Moraes’ findings have been published in leading scientific journals and frequently receive coverage from popular press outlets around the world. Her work has also been featured in biology textbooks and broadcast on public television in Europe and North America. Currently a professor at Pennsylvania State University, De Moraes’ accomplishments have been recognized through numerous awards and honors, including a prestigious Packard Foundation Fellowship and the NSF CAREER Award.
Smell scientist, entrepreneur, and author Avery N. Gilbert is a fragrance industry innovator and pioneer in the areas of olfactory mental imagery, multisensory correlates of odor perception, and the psychological factors that bias odor judgments. He created a sensory psychology research group for a major international fragrance company, founded three olfactory-related startup companies, and served as an advisor to two others.
Gilbert’s training in evolutionary biopsychology led him to academic research on odor perception and later to commercial R&D management and entrepreneurship. Gilbert graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and holds an M.A. in biology and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Following an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, he joined the Monell faculty. There, he co-authored the National Geographic smell survey—the largest participatory experiment of its kind. Eventually leaving academia to create and lead the sensory psychology research group at Givaudan Roure Fragrances, Gilbert became a vice president there.
Gilbert’s entrepreneurial experience includes a stint at DigiScents, Inc., where he was a member of the founding management team and vice president for sensory R&D. The company developed technology to deliver smell via electronic media and the Internet. Gilbert also founded and later sold Cranial One Corporation, which produced the Cranial I Quick Sniff® smell test that was marketed to doctors. Additionally, Gilbert runs Synesthetics, Inc., a company that provides innovative multisensory research for the development and marketing of consumer products. Clients include leading brands in air care, personal care, and fine fragrance.
A fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and a member of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences and European Chemoreception Research Organization, Gilbert has published twenty-nine scientific articles. His work is often cited in the media, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, The Economist, BusinessWeek, and Newsweek. His book, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize in science and technology, and short-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize. In addition, Gilbert has discussed the science of smell on national television and radio, including FOX, NPR, CNN, CBS, and MSNBC. He speaks frequently to professional groups on scientific and marketing trends in olfaction, and blogs on the science and culture of smell at firstnerve.com.