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FEATURES: Avant Garde Scientist
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With an eye for the uncommon, Leslie Vosshall’s life is imbued with art, enterprising research, and community engagement—which feeds back into her science.
Other scientists might have left such vaguely unpleasant tasks to their assistants. But Vosshall, an HHMI investigator at Rockefeller University, engages in the stinky socks enterprise the way she engages in so many things—with a spirited and contagious enthusiasm. After our chat in her apartment, which includes a tour of the artwork she collects from contemporary painters and photographers (as well as a quick hello to Ophelia’s pet tarantula), we head crosstown to her lab. There she opens the freezer to show me where the socks are stored, and laughs at how many of the labeled specimens are hers.
The science of smell has intrigued Vosshall for years, and wearing odiferous nylons is just a small piece of it. In her office at Rockefeller, where she is head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, several small refrigerators house rows of another kind of art she collects, high-end perfume (her personal favorites are two scents from the Parisian house of Frédéric Malle: Lys Méditerranée for summer, Dans tes Bras for winter). She says refrigeration keeps the scents fresher. Another fridge contains a strictly scientific collection of small vials of smell samples, part of Vosshall’s attempt to categorize scents according to their chemical structure, a kind of periodic table of smell. Eventually, she hopes—but this is a long way off—scientists will be able to do for smell what is possible for vision and sound: provide an objective measurement (like a wavelength for a particular color or musical note) from which to infer a particular smell.
Her work on the mechanics of mosquito olfaction carries implications for global public health. Because mosquitoes detect their human targets by smelling them, her research might one day reduce the incidence of common and deadly mosquito-borne infections, such as malaria and yellow fever.
Vosshall has been working in olfactory science since 1993, when she became a postdoc in the laboratory of neuroscientist and HHMI investigator Richard Axel of Columbia University. Her first discovery was controversial, since it described an olfactory receptor system that was unique to insects. This went against the conventional wisdom that most receptor systems are conserved from worms to humans. Her work on the insect olfactory receptor, called Orco, was originally done in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Later, Vosshall and her colleagues decoded an olfactory sensory map in the fruit fly brain, through which the activation of a particular fly odorant receptor leads to a particular behavior.
An Interview with Leslie Vosshall Vosshall discusses the discovery of glutamate receptors in the fly nose.