Smell: No Longer the “Cinderella” of the Senses
As child growing up in Alabama, Theresa White, Ph.D. learned about the history of the state and the lives of many of its most famous residents. There is one story in particular that stands out in White’s memory, though. It is that of Helen Keller. A childhood illness left Keller without the ability to see or hear. Yet, as White discovered when she herself was very young, Keller went on to enjoy success as an author, lecturer and disability rights advocate, relying solely on her remaining three senses. That revelation began for White what has been a lifelong fascination with how people think and how they process the world. It ultimately led her to study olfaction, or the sense of smell.
Today, in addition to her work as a professor and chair in the Department of Psychology at Le Moyne College, White researches learning, memory and sensory psychology as they relate to the senses of smell and taste. As an outgrowth of that interest, she has also completed studies related to the emotion of disgust. Olfaction is, she acknowledges, sometimes underappreciated (her graduate school adviser called it “the Cinderella of the senses”). White certainly does not see it that way. Her research has allowed her to travel the globe, to make meaningful contributions to a field that is important to her, and collaborate with incredibly bright people, many of whom have been her students.
“In all of the research projects I undertake, the fundamental question I am asking is: How do we think, how do we recall things, and how do those shape who we are as individuals?” she says. “I’m just using smell to do that … It’s a fun way to explore those overarching ideas and to figure out who we are.”
White is currently in the midst of three complex projects related to olfaction. The first is the replication of a study initially published by Judy Mennella, Ph.D. of the Monnell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which examines how people’s preference for sugar impacts the food they choose to eat. The second is an examination of olfactory working memory. White is working with Jonas Olofsson, Ph.D. of Stockholm University to find out whether it is easier for people to remember a series of distinct smells if they are broken up into small groups, as has been proven to be the case in recalling long sequences of numbers. The third is an investigation that she is undertaking with Sarah Spinelli, Ph.D. of the University of Florence, to study people’s aversion to or preference for sweet flavors, and how that relates to whether or not they drink alcoholic beverages. White hopes that the latter study will help advance treatment for people living with alcoholism.
In addition to these specific projects, White is intrigued overall by the capacity of the nerves that process olfactory information to regenerate themselves. She and many of her colleagues from around the world hope that the ability of those nerves to repair themselves holds promise for other parts of the human Central Nervous System.
For White, research is not just something about which she is personally passionate. It is a crucial component of a Jesuit education. She has witnessed firsthand the ways in which research fosters critical-thinking skills and relationships, both of which help students to solve problems and see things from a variety of perspectives. It is “part of the process of reflective discernment that helps young people to become whomever they are going to be,” she says.
What’s more, White firmly believes that when professors show students that they believe their work is valuable, the students come to see it the same way. That is why she is committed to publishing research with her students whenever possible and is fond of offering them these words of encouragement: “Do some science. Pay attention.”
Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Inequality
Chandan Jha, Ph.D. believes that building a meaningful professional life begins with finding something that inspires and moves you to take action. For Jha, that is the well-being of others.
Jha grew up in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, on the country’s border with Nepal, before moving to the United States to continue his education as a graduate student. Over the course of his life, he has witnessed and experienced what he calls “huge differences in culture,” discrepancies that he says “sometimes make him uncomfortable,” particularly as they relate to equity, fairness and inclusion.
As a child, he was aware of the disparate educational opportunities that were available to boys and girls in India. By the time he was ready to begin his undergraduate studies at Magadh University in Bodh Gaya, he wanted to understand those inequities better. Why did they exist? How did they impact people on a day-to-day basis? What, if any, responsibility did he have to help alleviate them?
Today Jha is the John K. Purcell ’65 Endowed Chair in Finance professor in the Madden College of Business and Economics at Le Moyne College. His research on corruption, particularly the link between social media and corruption, and the relationship between gender representation in national parliaments and corruption, has received media attention from all over the world. In 2020, Jha won the Kuznets Prize for his article, Ancestral Ecological Endowments and Missing Women, which he wrote with Gautam Hazarika of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Sudipta Sarangi of Virginia Tech for the Journal of Population Economics.
Most recently, Jha has been studying something particularly unique at the intersection of gender and equality: the connection between the abundance of arable land in antiquity and the level of participation of women in the workforce at present. Put simply, the more arable land a society has had, the more workers it has needed in order to cultivate that land. In past labor shortages, this work was often filled by women, who had traditionally worked in the home. Eventually, it became engrained in culture that women working outside of the home was acceptable, and even current societies with greater ancestral arable land are characterized by greater rates of female labor force participation. What’s more, because women’s health was vital for them to contribute to agriculture, these societies often placed a greater emphasis on women’s health, as evidenced by better outcomes measured by the maternal mortality rate and female-male life expectancy gap.
Over the course of his research, which included a large-scale review of literature, Jha found that this did not necessarily translate to greater empowerment for women in ancient life, nor does it correlate to more robust educational or civic opportunities for women today. However, it is an important data point in the history of women in the workforce and holds lessons for modern society. As Jha notes, at the start of 2023, just 53 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women, a statistic that can have real-world implications. Diverse teams arrive at better decisions than homogeneous ones. They tend to focus more on facts, to process those facts more carefully, and to be more creative in their thinking. That is why, as an economist, it is important to him to continue to explore issues of equity, fairness and inclusion. It is something about which he is passionate, and he believes that passion, in addition to curiosity and a commitment to the common good, is central to outstanding research.
“The world is a vast collection of knowledge,” he says. “I want to contribute to making the world a better place to live, and I believe I can do that by exploring the causes and consequences of different kinds of social inequality that exist.”
By Molly McCarthy, Writer-Editor, Office of Communications, Le Moyne College