Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Dr. Leslie Vosshall

Meet Dr. Leslie Vosshall. She's smart, beautiful and fierce in the science lab. Dr. Vosshall is a molecular neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University Vosshall Lab. She and her team investigate genetic codes and traits associated with olfaction, a branch of study known as neurogenetics. In addition to being a scientist Dr. Vosshall is quite the perfumista. She shares a few of her eau-pinions in her response to the Glass Petal Smoke Sensory Questionnaire.

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?

Everything. There is never a time when I am not sampling my environment by sniffing, forming opinions and thinking about smell. I am happy to have transmitted this obsession to my 9-year-old daughter, who regularly declares  “it smells like celery”, “it smells like cardboard,” and she is always dead-on in her sensory evaluations!

 2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?

Impossible to answer except to say that my whole life is anchored to different scents, so every memory I have has a scent association.

3.  What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking  and your environment)?

 Pine, violet, jasmine, lily, skunk, dirt [earth], and ozone.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?

I think the smell of skunk is one of the best scents on earth.

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.

Every cooking smell except meat is my favorite: garlic, onions, and leeks with olive oil. This may seem a bit cliché, but truffles smell pretty great—truffle salt on baked butternut squash bits. I could go on for pages…

 6.  What smells do you most dislike?

I detest pyrazine and 1-butanol, which were a daily feature of my life at the bench as a lab scientist. These are very pungent solvents we used to synthesize DNA oligonucleotides and make layers of acrylamide stacking gels, respectively. Now that I run a lab, I am a bit distanced from these smells (and time has marched on, so we outsource oligonucleotide synthesis and purchase pre-made acrylamide gels, so my scientists probably have never smelled these odors).

Outside of the laboratory, badly crafted mens’ cologne puts me in a bad mood for hours. Unfortunately, 90% of mass-marketed men's fragrances are awful. How much better would the world be if we could fix that?

 7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?

As a child, I did not eat any fish or seafood, but have come to love the subtle faint smell of raw oysters.

 8.  What mundane smells inspire you?

Any place in the world after the rain. The damp earth releases all sorts of good organic fungal earthy green scents, regardless of the location on the planet.

9.  What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
This answer is very clichéd, but anything that smells of my American grandparents’ very old house in Connecticut; also the scratchy plastic carpeting on the stairs of my German grandparents’ house.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?

My mother wore Fidji by Guy Laroche alternating with Shalimar by Guerlain. She was a banker’s wife and so would get dressed up, get perfumed up and would sweep out the door as the babysitter arrived. Very glamorous. I appreciate but do not wear these perfumes, but they are a great reminder of the 1970s world I inhabited as a child in Europe and New York City.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?

Love’s Fresh Lemon by Dana. I started to mail-order fragrance when I was about 10 and this was my favorite. So simple, so yellow, and such great rounded plastic and glass packaging.

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?

Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes. When I bought it and smelled it, it was a perfect copy of the smell of sitting in the gardens at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat while playing hooky from a scientific meeting mid-June sometime in the early 1990s.

13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.

Buck L, Axel R. A novel multigene family may encode odorant receptors: a molecular basis for odor recognition. Cell. 1991 Apr 5;65(1):175-87.

Probably not the literature you were thinking of, but this primary scientific article won a Nobel Prize for the authors and caused a revolution in the science of smell that is still unfolding today.


Photo of Dr. Leslie Vosshall by Chester Higgins Jr. Used with permission. Rights revert back to the photographer.

Smell My World is a DVD in the "The Five Senses Series" by Braincandy.

Katheryn Vermillion's painting, Pipelines and Magnolias, is part of her Louisiana Map Works series. Limited edition prints are available on the artist's website. Rights revert back to the artist.

Photo of Viola odorata by Hazel L. Topoleski. The photograph is featured on the American Violet Society website. Rights revert back to the site.

Pepé Le Pew is the charming French skunk featured in the Warner Brothers cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons. The episode is available on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume I (2003).

Photo of "Onerous Vapors" and "Oyster" by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Image of "Odorant Receptors and the Organization of the Olfactory System" from The image illustrates Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck's award-winning discovery.