‘Scents’ talk draws family crowd

A lecture titled “Scents and Sensibility: The Molecular Mechanisms of Olfaction” would seem to target a somewhat older audience, appreciative of highbrow literary puns. But throw in some booger jokes, jelly beans and recurring praise of combination pizza, and suddenly the lecture appeals to Science Saturdays’ usual crowd — that is, kids of all ages.

Last Saturday, neurosurgery and neurobiology professor Charles Greer spoke on smell: how our sense of smell works, the behavioral consequences of smell and the anatomy involved in smelling everything from Proust’s madeleine to your bathroom after its been vacated by your stinky brother. He said Science Saturdays open up career possibilities in science careers to local children.

“I think Science Saturdays is a wonderful opportunity to expose children to the ongoing research at Yale,” Greer said. “It provides them with some exposure to opportunities that await them as they continue their education.”

Science Saturdays is the brainchild of mechanical engineering professor Ainissa Ramirez. Ramirez’s enthusiasm, as well as donuts, interactive demonstration tables — with free glow sticks and other goodies — and informative speakers have drawn large and diverse crowds to the events for the past four seasons.

As the talk began, Ramirez tried to motivate the kids to take their seats.

“He brought some human brains,” she said. “When’s the next time you’re going to get to touch a brain?”

A mother seemed worried about this activity and inquired if the brains had been properly preserved. Ramirez playfully responded that she shouldn’t worry because they were not “straight out of a head.”

Even after this enticement, however, kids were slow to abandon the buffet tables.

“The donuts are a huge draw,” one mother said, dragging a reluctant child by the hand back to his seat.

Ramirez introduced Greer to an excited crowd, referring to him as “a Harley-Davidson man.” The lecture began with a definition of anosmia, or a loss of sense of smell; parosmia, or a change in sensitivity to smell; and the lesser known “rhinotillexomania.”

“This disease is characterized by insertion of a single digit into the nose,” Greer said. “If your teachers ever give you a problem, you can just say ‘Leave me alone, I have rhinotillexomania!’ ”

Greer went on to give a thorough and accessible description of the neurological study of smell, drawing analogies to make complex concepts comprehensible. The cilia, for instance, where odorants are received, have a structure specific to their function. To elucidate this, he invoked a baseball analogy: You probably won’t catch a ball with a small clenched fist, he explained, but increase the surface area with your mitt and look how well you can catch.

For the younger set, who still could not wrap their minds around cilia, Greer had an explanation of booger production.

“Boogers are made from dirt, so they’re dirty,” Greer said, adding that they contain “dust, bugs, that pea you shoved up there as a kid. Stop lining them up by your desk or under your bed.”

Greer even taught a jelly bean party trick with which the attendees could impress their friends. Pinch your nose totally closed, Greer directed, and then toss a handful of jellybeans into your mouth. All you taste is a faint sweetness, he said, until you release your nose and experience a veritable explosion of flavors.

“There are more genes devoted to odor identification than to any other function in our body,” Greer said.

If activities and facts like these weren’t enough to intrigue his audience, Greer offered bathroom humor that no one could resist. He put up a photograph of women in lab coats sniffing the armpits of their subjects.

“With opportunities like this,” Greer said, “why wouldn’t you want to work in olfaction?

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