Life-sciences alum nurtures love of animals through research

July 7, 2015

Many animal lovers dream of becoming veterinarians, but some realize during college that there are other ways to interact with animals.

Susannah French, a 2006 alumna of Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, chose one such path and is now an assistant professor at Utah State University studying reptiles and their environment. Susannah French studies how iguanas respond to environmental changes. French, a 2006 alumna of Arizona State University‚Äôs School of Life Sciences who is now an assistant professor at Utah State University, draws a blood sample from an iguana. Photo by: Trevor Brown Download Full Image

“As an undergraduate, I became really interested in scientific research and wanted to pursue it further in a graduate program,” French said. “I was fascinated by how animals use different internal and behavioral mechanisms to survive diverse environments.”

That interest directed her to ASU’s doctoral biology program in the school. As a graduate student, she learned the skills needed to run her own lab, conduct independent research and obtain funding. French said the thing she enjoyed most about her time at ASU was the diversity of her peers’ research and the lasting bonds created while working together.

“The integrative nature of the School of Life Sciences allowed for a lot of interactions with students performing other types of research,” French said. “I’m still collaborating with a behavioral neuroscientist and several fellow physiological ecologists who are friends from SOLS.”

French said her mentors, including professors Pierre Deviche, Glenn Walsberg and Dale DeNardo, provided the critical guidance and support she needed to advance her career.

“My interactions with them were invaluable to my research and training as an academic,” French explained. “I still contact them today when I need advice, and I have adapted different parts of my own mentoring style from theirs.”

After earning her doctorate, she accepted a post-doctoral research associate position at Indiana University, where she was funded by a National Institutes of Health fellowship. There, French initiated a research project in the Galapagos Islands focused on how reptiles adapt to environmental disturbances – a project that is still ongoing.

When the fellowship concluded, French was drawn to an opening at Utah State that offered a perfect mix of research, teaching and outreach.

“My main focus now is research, but I still get to teach the courses I love best and got me interested in physiology,” French said.

French said mentoring students is her favorite part of the job – and thanks to her ASU experience, she is ready to teach the next generation what it means to be a researcher and professor.  

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine


ASU researcher disputes claim that humans can distinguish 1 trillion odors

July 7, 2015

An Arizona State University researcher is calling into question recent findings that the human nose is capable of distinguishing at least 1 trillion odors.

Rick Gerkin, an assistant research professor with ASU School of Life Sciences, said the data used in a study made public last year does not support this claim. How many smells can humans distinguish? Arizona State University researcher Rick Gerkin disagrees with findings made public last year in the journal Science that humans can smell at least 1 trillion odors. In a new paper published in eLife, Gerkin and co-author Jason Castro present several arguments as to why the number of smells humans can distinguish is still unknown. Photo by: Andy DeLisle Download Full Image

According to Gerkin, this is important because findings from the 2014 study published in the journal Science are already making their way into neuroscience textbooks, misinforming up-and-coming investigators and cutting off potentially productive lines of research that do not adhere to those findings. Researchers from Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute authored that paper.

The new paper challenging the findings appears today in the journal eLife.

“We disagree with several aspects of the 2014 study,” said Gerkin, who co-authored the paper with Jason Castro, a professor with Bates College in Maine. “First, the assertion that humans can discriminate between at least 1 trillion odors is based on a fragile mathematical framework — one that’s capable of creating nearly any result with small variations in the data or the experiment design. So the result in question could be tens of orders of magnitude — a factor of one with dozens of zeros after it — larger or smaller than first reported."

Castro added: “We also point out that the conclusion in the 2014 paper relies heavily on untested assumptions about smell perception. And the equation used actually shows that the number of distinguishable smells is fewer than 1 trillion, not more, making the original claim inaccurate, and in fact the exact opposite of what the calculation actually shows.”

Gerkin and Castro show in their paper that if the experiment had used approximately 100 additional subjects, the same analysis would have shown that the human nose could discriminate all possible odors — clearly at odds with the data in the 2014 paper. Moreover, had the researchers used a slightly more conservative statistical analysis, it would have shown that humans can distinguish only 5,000 odors — about the same number generally believed to be true prior to 2014.

According to Gerkin, the number of smells humans can discriminate is the kind of fact that could flow naturally from a deeper understanding of olfaction — something we currently lack, but which must be established to better understand olfactory health and diseases of smell.

“Scientists can easily compute the number of discriminable colors because they know the organization of color perception,” Gerkin said. “For example, think about the color wheel we learned in elementary school or the red-green-blue color values that make it possible to display color on television.

"For smells, there is no accepted ‘smell wheel’ just yet. To make one, we must first discover the organization of olfactory perception. Only then can a principled calculation be used to determine how many unique smells there really are.”

The pair added that only when olfaction is better understood can researchers develop the tools needed to address health issues related to smell disorders, which often have a profound, negative impact on human well-being.

Gerkin studies how olfactory perception, learning and behavior are encoded in the brain. He also pursues neuroinformatics — the development of tools and standards to facilitate the collection, curation, dissemination and analysis of neuroscience models and data.

ASU School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise