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Dr. Cordelia Running, a chemist and a psychophysicist, uses flavors and sensations to understand human behavior and improve human nutrition. As an assistant professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, Dr. Running studies Saliva, Perception, Ingestion, and Tongues (The SPIT Lab) to help people to stick to healthy yet palatable diets. Her recent work emphasizes how saliva might adapt to bitter, healthy foods over time, trapping some of the bitter molecules and reducing the bitterness. Her research is funded by NIH, and she has multiple publications on the topics of food flavor, acceptability, structure, and the biochemistry of oral sensations.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: So, Cordelia, welcome to the call.
Cordelia: Hey, thanks. Happy to be here.
John: Okay, great. So something you and I are talking about right before the show started here is of course, the topic on everyone's mind, which is the pandemic and how it's changing basically everything about our lives, including how we conduct research. I think it'd be really helpful for our listeners to hear right off the bat. How are you adapting to the pandemic? How is your research being influenced by it? And how do you kind of see sensory more widely being affected by the different challenges that we now face?
Cordelia: Yeah, it certainly is a different world. So I know a lot of my work focuses on this aspect of the biochemistry of saliva. And clearly, we're not going to be doing that right now for a lot of reasons. You know, I thought about, you know, could we mail people kits and collected and have them send it back? But you know it's just, it's not worth the risk right now. Not until we, you know, understand more of what's going on and how the virus persists. You know, it's just not worth it. So we've sort of shifted gears in my lab to focus more on some of the sensory aspects of what we do. So the ideas of, you know, home use tests, I imagine are going to become popular in our world in these short few, hopefully short months. While we're all trapped at home and not touching each other. And then sort of honestly, I think a lot of it to almost all of what we're gonna end up doing remotely with participants is going to start to have bits of what we call at my university extension work. So if you're familiar with the gland grant universities, each state has one. And part of their mission is to teach people things, the local community, the state as a whole, to sort of bring what we learned through our research to the public. And so as part of some of these projects. So we have some sweet projects going on, some texture projects that we're adapting to do remotely. We'll end up teaching people things about how to collect sensory data. Just inherently, because we're gonna have to do this through little video calls to say, alright, you know, work it as a team, make sure the person has their eyes closed, that they're not looking at the sample. They don't know which ones, which all the things that we as sensory scientists know. You know, you don't want people to know which ones which before they taste something. We're gonna have to teach them those sorts of protocols and the ideas of randomization and counterbalancing will play into that. So because otherwise we wouldn't trust any of the data that we collect from people. So, yeah. So we're going to kind of be a little pieces of that extension mission, kind of start to build its way into our more sensory research work just because otherwise I just wouldn't trust the data. So in the end, that's probably a good thing. It just makes it a little complicated.
John: That's fascinating. Actually, I hadn't really thought about how education like, there are so many ways in which these new technologies are driving education and they were doing it before the crisis. But now it's kind of turbocharging king of education. So, yeah, I mean, that's if we just kind of can like back to something a little bit more pleasant of the pandemic, that something that I was impressed by was I don't know if you saw this, but there is a chatbot out there for Apothic wines. They have a chatbot where to improve consumer engagement when you do taste the wine. You talk to the chatbot and it educates you about the wine.
Cordelia: That's really fun.
John: And so it's interesting to think about the use of, you know, something like a chatbot for education here, where you've got people. So when you have people in their homes, you know as part of the extension, who are these students that are in their homes or these just members of the general population?
Cordelia: Well, we are figuring that out. So these are still early days in terms of adapting the work, I mean, we still have to get approval from our human subjects, research group and whatnot. And you know, usually taste experiments. So when you're tasting whole foods and food ingredients at approved levels, usually that work is exempt from the review that universities typically use to make sure that researchers are being ethical. So if you look back into the history of scientific research, there were a lot of things that were done that were unethical. And so now we all have these approval boards, right? To make sure that we're all behaving properly, which is really important. But then also, you know, it means that when we're shifting gears in a time like now, we can't just do it. We've got to go ask. And so I'm not sure yet whether our review board will still consider everything exempt in a world like today, where almost everything you can imagine is a higher risk. You know, even if I have something delivered to their house, that's an item that they would not otherwise have had delivered. So is that an increased risk to the participant? Does this still count as now exempt research that usually wouldn't require a bunch of approvals and forums and whatnot? So we don't really know exactly how this is going to work. We'll probably end up using mostly local community members just so that we know what we can get delivered to their house, whether we need to drop off packets at their house along with stuff to hose it down, to sanitize city services or whatnot. And so it might be perhaps a few more sort of not just the typical undergrads that you often get in university studies. In theory, be more representative of the population. But honestly, we find that we actually get a lot of staff members in most of our studies anyway, just because those are the people who are in the building all day long. And so or in a building next door all day long. And so they're more likely to have 15 or 30 minutes to run over and eat something versus the students are kind of everywhere. And so you never know whether you'll get those. So honestly, our average age tends to be upper 20's and most of our studies, which to me says that there's a good mix of undergrads and staff people. So maybe that's not really going to change a whole lot. But we'll see. We will have certainly more sort of group participation, I imagine, you know, like so a couple who's trapped together in the same house or roommates who are trapped together in the same apartments. And so we're going to have to think about, well, how do you adapt the data analysis for these sort of subcategories and it is almost like a new block within your design. Well, these people taste it within the same room as partners or as a trio or things like that. So, I mean, we'll have to check that when we run the data.
John: Yeah. Innovation. So, yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, the IRB is an interesting topic too, because normally doesn't the IRB physically get together? I mean, they probably, I thought that they like conveners.
Cordelia: Yeah. Usually they all meet together in a room on campus. And so I'm sure that's all happening remotely now. I'm sure they're still meeting because there is research pertaining to the virus that's going on at Purdue University. In fact, we're probably going to submit some protocols about testing homemade masks because it turns out if you didn't know, it turns out that the official protocol in hospitals to test the N95 masks kit is to basically put hold on the person and hose them down with bitter taste, like benzoate and aspartame and things like that. So sweet and bitter things. And they have to go through this whole rigmarole where they, you know, alright, breathe. Do you taste anything? If you taste something, you fail. The mask is not properly fitted. And then there is like jump up and down and talk. And you all move around to make sure that the mask is correctly fitted to their face. And so it turns out our expertise is worth something in a pandemic. Who would have thought?
John: That's interesting.
Cordelia: And so we're going to see if we can adapt some of those protocols where you basically nebulize bittersweet tastes into the air that people are breathing and see if we can test different materials and homemade masks or different designs of like the homemade cloth masks. Now, I expect all of them will fail. Technically, you're going to be able to taste this stuff through these masks are not that good. But maybe there are different materials we could insert to improve the barrier function. Or maybe if the scenes in a certain place or if it's tied to your face instead of the elastic around your ears, maybe that makes a tighter fit. So those are things that we could in theory test. By exposing people down to taste science.
John: Yeah, exactly. That's very interesting.
Cordelia: Yeah. We did not expect I would not have expected taste science to be a critical thing in a pandemic. But it turns out there's actually a lot going on. There's even reports that one of the early symptoms for a lot of folks is loss a taste and smell. And there's a whole group that's organized around sort of trying to track and document that phenomenon. And just one world.
John: Yeah, well, apparently, we're searches for I can't smell. That's a very diagnostic term.
Cordelia: Yeah. There's some folks saying that if you suddenly lose your sense of smell or taste, that you should go ahead and make sure you're in complete isolation just because that is an early sign. It's an emerging potential sign, I should say. And ones that, it's also one that probably is not one of the standard battery of things that a typical healthcare environment would be asking. You know, they're going to ask about like your cough and whether you have a fever. And so this is especially because the symptoms of this don't include like a stuffy nose, which is usually how you lose your sense of smell during a sickness because your nose is stuffy, but people's noses are completely clear. They can breathe just fine through their nose. So it's a sort of new symptom that people are having to think about.
John: That seems could almost give rise to some sort of home test kit. We have a variety of, you have a range of things you can detect. That's interesting.
Cordelia: Yeah. So and we've been in the group. I haven't been too active once they made the group formal, it's the what are they calling the GCCR, the Global Consortium on Chemosensory Research. It's a whole group of scientists from all over the world who have come together and are kind of having a strategy now for how do we diagnose the taste and smell. What do we do? And so it all kind of started out of a Twitter conversation. We were speaking of Twitter earlier and I was saying how it's like my science refuge, but these days that's scary. But, yeah, we had this Twitter conversation and John Hayes, who's a sensory scientist at Penn State, had asked me, hey, Corey, you want to do the conversions real quick from the sort of typical sensory stimuli we've used in the past for assessing taste sensitivity and make it into tablespoons and cups so that people could do this at home. And so that's kind of where this all started, was out of that conversation. And we sitting down and converting molar solutions into how many tablespoons of sugar do you need in a cup of water to get these sort of standardized thing?
John: So it's simple ingredients. You can mix and get a sense of whether or not you really should worry about your....
Cordelia: So I was doing the taste part. I imagine they've come up with something for smell by now, but the taste part is really easy. There's my file. It's right here on my desktop actually from where I was typing all this in.
John: Might as well tell us the recipe.
Cordelia: Yeah. And all of this, this was just based off the taste protocol that they did as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It's in the NHANES data I always forget with M stands for. But they do it in the US to get a representative sample of the entire population like every year. And in twenty I believe it was 2013-2014, they added a taste and smell component and the taste they used were salt. So sodium chloride quinine, which is a bitter compound found in tonic water, sugar and citric acid. And I think the main ones they stuck to in the long run were the salt and the bitter solution. But there should be at least some data out there on the sucrose and the acid parts as well.
John: Before you say this Cordelia, I'm going to tell everybody. Do not take medical advice from this podcast if you think you have coronavirus, seek medical advice.
Cordelia: Yes. Please do seek medical attention. If you taste a sugar water and you can't taste the sweetness then also seek medical attention. But we're not trying to diagnose you.
John: Even if you can't taste it. This is not a medical advice.
Cordelia: Yeah, doesn't mean that you don't have it just because you can still taste sugar.
John: And don't drink fish tank later also.
Cordelia: Well, yeah. Don't do that. Please don't do that. Talk to a doctor. Yeah. So anyway, let's see. It looks like I was like about three and a half tablespoons into a liter, which is about a quart close enough for the sake of, if you just want to tastes salty enough. Three and a half tablespoons and a quarter water for the high salty concentration, one tablespoon of salt into a quarter water for a low sort of intensity salty sensation. And then it was like twenty seven tablespoons, which is about a cup and three quarters of sugar into a liter of water to taste sweet. Bitter is harder. I've actually been thinking about this for a long time, like there's a lot of things that are bitter out there, but almost all of them are something else too. And so I mean, there's always tonic water has quinine on it. Quinine is and that will be better. But it will also be sweet. There's coffee, which is in theory bitter, but how bitter all depends on your coffee and how you make it and all those sorts of things, at least if all of us who are coffee snobs are to be believed.
John: It depends on the humidity. You have a barometer when you're making you are coffee. Yeah. Well, that's fascinating. So do you see I mean, how would this work in practice then when someone like this is I guess a detection task or what's the actual tasks?
Cordelia: Well, this isn't detection threshold. So that's sort of that would be the lowest concentration that people could detect. But that's hard because people are so variable on how much sweetness, or saltiness or bitterness they can detect. So these are more intensity tasks. And so, like, how strong was it? So really, like, if you can't taste the low concentration at all, then maybe maybe talk to somebody about what's going on there. Yeah. And even then, I'm not sure if the consensus these days is really that it is tasteless, which would be what I was just talking about with salt or sugar or bitter or sour. It might be smell loss more predominantly. Which most people, when they experience the loss of the sense of smell. They call it taste biochemically. Those are different things, you know, taste coming from taste receptors in your mouth through taste nerves to the brain to specific areas in the brain, whereas odor is actually from the olfactory receptors that are in the top part of your nasal cavity. And so, you know, when people get sick, they think they can't taste anything. But it's really the aroma of foods that you're losing. So there's no longer the air going up the back side of your throat into your nasal passages. So you can't really smell anything. That's sort of backwards direction as well as from normal or direction. But, yeah, usually when you get sick, if you put salt in your mouth, it's still salty. If you put sugar in your mouth. It's still sweet. It's that aroma that you lose. So, you know, it's no longer vanilla or coffee. It's just sweet, bitter, those sorts of things.
John: Do you have any idea as hypothesis as to the mechanism whereby people are losing their taste and smell? I mean that I mean, I don't want take you outside of area that you feel.
Cordelia: Yes, probably outside of what? I've read a couple things about it. But that like seriously, that sentence is probably the extent of my expertise. A couple things out there. Where people who do the more mechanistic work, who do things like tracking what proteins on which cells respond to what outside stimuli, those folks actually have some pathways and such identified that make sense. And so that's then it's interesting to watch, but it's definitely not my area of expertise. But you know this is one of those times where, you know, you see the people who do the really basic scientists, the science, you know, who are working in flies and worms and rodents. And you're like, yep, we all need each other because those are the folks who can solve all the pathway questions about why the heck is this happening. Whereas, you know, then you need people like me to come up with how many tablespoons of sugar you put into a quart of water, I guess.
John: Right. Those are called a teamwork. That's interesting. Okay, well we could talk about this probably for the rest of the call.
Cordelia: I'm sure we could.
John: Yeah, I've been reading lately about the possibility that the virus works fundamentally by reducing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.
Cordelia: Yeah, I read that abstract at least as well. But yeah, I don't know.
John: If you've got basically oxygen deprivation that could lead to the symptom of something else. Okay, let me ask you about, well that's good. So kind of post pandemic, if we put ourselves in the future, only think about what things are sort of back to normal. First of, it is interesting think about what good do you see coming out of the pandemic, what kind of things are we going to learn or be forced to do that you see us continuing to do that we'll be glad that we worked on?
Cordelia: Well, I think we'll learn a lot about, you know, how many meetings we didn't need. For all of us, why do we need to do another virtual meeting online? Let's just cut that one up. But beyond that, as a sort of sensory and flavor world, I think it's really highlighted our need to understand how people behave in their homes. And so kind of going back to those ideas of home use studies or having people test themselves on various products. We've known for a while it's possible there's plenty of people who are working on this. There's plenty of companies who are sending out products to be tested, and masks. But suddenly, like, that's what we can do. And so I think we're going to be kind of forced to like all come to a better group with that, and I think that's that's probably for the best. I'll be interested to see as our sort of community evolves. You know, what sort of what sort of lessons we take from it about best approaches and how much blinding really is necessary to get the best data rather than the most controlled data. Because those are really two different questions. So, yeah, we're going to figure out a lot of stuff, that's for sure. But we'll see where it takes us.
John: Yeah. I'm really interested in your comment about education, because that's something I see technology does support education in general, even just simple things like before any of this stuff happened. You go to the grocery store, you do self checkout, right? Well, how many people didn't know how to look at the produce to figure out what number the produce was? But now we all do that, right? There's a lot of situations where automation technology. Here's another example. My son's teacher at school, she's an older woman, not very prior to the pandemic, wasn't very technologically savvy. Today, she's sending out IT support answers to how do we get pictures to show up like she's like literally now is becoming an expert on how, and is now like answering our questions about how do we get the group picture to show up. Like, I didn't know I actually probably if I spent a while, I would have had it. But I didn't spend a lot of time. I just couldn't get it to work . You know, this woman who before the pandemic could have never even thought to even investigate this question is answering, right? So I wonder if you will have, for example, at some point maybe education and people in their houses how to conduct tetrad tests or something like that? I'm not sure if that be good quality data.
Cordelia: Yeah, I'd love to see people do that. Like, I just honestly, I just love the tetrad test just in so many ways.
John: Oh, I'm talking the right person.
Cordelia: I know. I'm not saying that. Just to be nice but really I just love it because I did so many triangle tests as a grad students. I believe it was just shy of nine hundred individual participant visits for the threshold studies that I did on Fat Taste as a graduate student. And so nine hundred individual, one on one meetings going anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and a half with people handing them series of cups to do threshold tests , you know, doing. We did mostly the ascending series and my tests where, you know, slowly ramp up the concentration until people can detect it. And just the number of people in those studies who, you know, you tell them about the triangle tests like alright, so you're gonna get three samples. Two of them are the same and one of them is different. Tell me which sample you think is the different sample? And, you know, you kind of have a standard sentence like that you say every time. And then out of the blue, I'd like accidentally say, tell me which sample you think has the fat in it versus tell me which sample was different from the other two and suddenly the person can do the test. Because identifying the sample with that flavor in it versus identifying the sample that was different is two different mental exercises. And you notice because you've written about all this, but like watching people have that realization just really reinforced to me that the whole right now. Whereas once they understand what the Tetrad test is, you know, having something to compare the samples to really does help the brain figure out what the heck you're trying to do. And so so I'd love to see people doing more tetrad tests. You know, people that's the other thing I think you learn as a sensory scientist is that people interpret directions very creatively. And I think anyone who works with humans knows that. But like I mean, I've had people give me ratings before they tasted the samples. And I'm like, how did you do like how did that taste? Yeah. I don't know how they do that, but you know, they do.
John: Yeah. So before dinner every night my son magically declares he doesn't like it before he'd tried it. Well that's good. That's interesting. Yeah. I mean maybe we'll have tetra tests . I mean it's simple. Well amazingly we have we're almost out of time. Thank you for a very enjoyable and educational conversation. So I always like to ask at the end. Well, a couple of things, we need to make sure we get your contact information. Yeah. But before we get to that, what is the advice that you give to your students or you would give to a young sensory scientist starting out? You know, especially right now, I can't even imagine starting a career right now. But what advice would you have? You know, as far as things to focus on, how to make sure that you blossom in your career? What would you what would you say?
Cordelia: Well, I think one of the things I try to encourage my students to think about is to really look into what this job is, as a sensory scientists. I think once you really get into it, you realize that we're statisticians who taste things. But I don't think I think a lot of people who look at this job who read, you know, when I get applications or letters from prospective students are like, hey, I want to work at your lab or undergraduates. Hey, I want to work in your lab cause you taste stuff and that's fun. And I agree that is fun and that's why I do it. But at the same time, there's a lot of math that goes in to actually analyzing the data, especially if you want to be sort of on the forefront of the technology and the approaches that we use to collect the best data. I mean, if you just want to sit in a room and run triangle or maybe tetrad tests all day to tell you two samples are different or, you know, is one sweeter than another. Alright that math, you can learn that pretty quickly. But if you really want to do the new stuff, there is some fancy statistical approaches there. There's some code and programming that you got to learn. And so I think they should think about that like, is this what you want to do? You know, because often a lot of sensory sciences that companies might spend most their life figuring out of two things are different from each other. So they should think about, is that what you want to do? And if not, then either you need to think about convincing your company to let you be more involved. And some of the processes or you think about, you know, do you want to learn the more advanced techniques? Some of the more advanced methodologies and coding strategies and whatnot. And so that's a balance. Like this isn't just you to go into the kitchen and make tasty things and then feed them to people. In fact, often a lot of what we're doing is trying to make disgusting things a little better, at least if you're in nutrition, at least. Maybe that's my own bias. But, yeah, I spend a lot of time making nasty things taste better.
John: Okay. So at least go into this with your eyes open.
Cordelia: Yeah, like math is a thing. You should know that.
John: Yeah. it's interesting. Okay. Well, this has been great, Cordelia. and if someone wants to reach out, suppose they want to, you know, apply to join your lab or they just have some questions, how should they find you?
Cordelia: Yeah, well the easiest way to catch me would be through email, through Purdue University. So you can either Google my name with Purdue and it'll come up or it's just C as in Charlie and then running like running down the street, the verb at purdue.edu. So I'm pretty easy to find that way. It's not a very common name.
John: And then Twitter and LinkedIn we can put that?
Cordelia: Oh yeah. Yeah. So Twitter I'm @SplitLab so my acronym, same thing for Instagram, which is a mixture of various foods and things that I teach people nerdy things about and pictures of my dogs because I can't help myself.
John: Well, this has been great. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Cordelia: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It's a lot of fun.
John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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