Researching Smell, From Someone Who Can’t

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Daniel Schein was born without a sense of smell, a condition known as “congenital anosmia.” Wanting to learn more about anosmia, he spent the last two summers researching olfaction as a volunteer in Johannes Reisert’s lab. We asked Daniel, currently a senior majoring in Computer Information Systems at Baruch College in New York City, to share his experience.

Daniel Schein with mentor Johannes Reisert, PhD

Many people don’t appreciate what it means to be unable to smell. As someone with congenital anosmia, I know first-hand what it feels like to go through each day without the sense of smell.

When I was a high school student, in an effort to raise awareness, I founded Anosmia Awareness Day. Those with anosmia and their families see it as a day to recognize the importance of the sense of smell and to educate others about anosmia.

I am also an active member of the international anosmia community, using social media to bring people with olfactory disorders together in order to share experiences, guidance, and resources.

When I first began researching anosmia, I found only a few research centers and organizations doing work to help those with anosmia. Of those, Monell stood out with its number of researchers dedicated to learning all about the sense of smell.

I decided to spend some time working at Monell because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the biology underlying olfaction and olfactory disorders. Additonally, I wanted to be part of the cutting edge research being done by the leading scientists at Monell – the pre-eminent center for studying olfaction.

I ended up spending two summers at Monell. While I felt privileged to contribute to the research, what really drew me in was Monell’s welcoming environment. The walls are covered with posters proudly detailing the different research projects that have been done at Monell. The staff is dedicated and passionate about their studies, and they were always happy to help with any questions I had. Each principal investigator (the head researcher of each lab) I encountered was excited to tell me about their research. Their dedication encouraged me to continue my research project for a second summer.

During my time at Monell, I not only learned laboratory skills but also gained an appreciation for the research process. My project involved examining the development of olfactory pathways in mice. Working in the laboratory of Dr. Johannes Reisert, I studied the effect of the enzyme phosphodiesterase 4a (PDE4a) on olfactory receptor neuron targeting. Using immunocytochemistry techniques, which allow us to confirm the presence and location of enzymes and other proteins within cells, I compared neuronal signaling in wild type and PDE4a knock-out mice (mice without the PDE4a enzyme).

This work helped show that PDE4a helps olfactory cells in the nose know where to make their connections in the brain. Studies on PDE4 are still ongoing in Dr. Reisert’s lab.  Better understanding the biology of olfaction may lead to better understanding of the causes of olfactory disorders and possibly, one day, effective treatments for these disorders.

My experience at Monell gave me unique insight into the complex biology underlying the sense of smell. I learned more about the many aspects of olfaction and olfactory disease being studied by scientists at Monell and at other institutions around the world. I better comprehend the mechanisms behind olfactory processes and how they contribute to our perception of smell. And I have greater admiration for the rigorous process of scientific research: the design of experiments, the collection and analysis of data, and the presentation of results.

I hope to pursue a career as an otolaryngologist specializing in olfactory disorders. I also plan to continue to do research into the underlying science of olfaction, as well as the causes of olfactory disease and the development of possible treatments.

I’m truly grateful to Monell for encouraging my scientific exploration, and for all the work they do to advance the understanding of the sense of smell.