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Dr. Reed is the Associate Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which is a non-profit research institute with scientists that use a multidisciplinary approach to study taste and smell. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. from Yale University. She trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Scientists in her laboratory study how genotype account for personal differences in taste perception. Currently, she is on the leadership committee for the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research which is studying the effects of COVID-19 on taste and smell.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: So, Danielle, thanks a lot for being on the show.
Danielle: Oh, you're entirely welcome. It's really good to be here despite all of the craziness in the world.
John: Yes, life still goes on. That's been the thing that has amazed me the most is that for the most part, life goes on.
Danielle: Yes, it does. Absolutely. Well into the night.
John: Yeah, that's right. So before the show, we were actually talking about the extent to which you and I have been just really in almost constant motion since this thing has begun. I mean, for me, it feels like it's just been one long day that won't end. So you know, I'm really starting to feel the effects of all this activity. And I'm really curious. I think that our listeners would be curious, what is it that has been most on your plate since the pandemic started? What have been the things that would keeping you busy?
Danielle: So what's been going on with me is, you know, all of the normal things that come with having a life data science and analyzing data and answering research questions. But with the Covid-19, one of the new scientific findings has been that there is a loss of sense of smell. And what's more unusual, perhaps a loss of sense of taste and also came this thesis that's the warming, cooling, burning sensation that we get from chili peppers or what have you. But what that all means for me as a sensory scientist is that people's interest in their demand for knowledge about this is just absolutely exploded. And so there is a lot of studies going in progress, a lot of work to evaluate, a lot of papers to review. But I'm also part of this consortium that's recently formed to study, taste, and smell loss with Covid-19. So that's been a big chunk of my time.
John: Yeah, that's really interesting. It's interesting in so many ways. So one thing just quickly, do you know anything, is there hypothesis as to the mechanism by which the taste smell loss is happening?
Danielle: So what's really interesting is, is that people don't necessarily think about this, but smell loss when people have upper respiratory infections, colds, flu, whatever, it's very common. So in one of the big data surveys that we did, the National Geographic Smell survey, two-thirds of people, two-thirds of the population of over a million people said that they had had some temporary smell loss when they'd had a cold or flu. But what happens is because our noses are blocked up when we have a cold and flu, then we don't really twig into the fact it makes sense that we can't smell right because our noses are blocked up. And what's really got people really alarmed with Covid-19 is that there's the smell loss, but the nose is not blocked. And so it's a really striking phenomenon.
John: Interesting. Is that a nerve issue or what?
Danielle: Yes. So what is happening. So one of the simple-minded hypotheses is that the olfactory neurons are bipolar, which means one part sticks into the nose and one part goes up into the brain. And so the idea at the simplest level might be that when the nose is under attack with the virus, those neurons either apoptosis, they destroy themselves. They turn themselves off so that they shut down as a conduit to the brain. It's like a very sort of ancient protective mechanism. Now, that's just an idea. We don't know that that's true. But that's one idea of why it happens. But if that's true, then it's really unclear what's happening with taste, because taste receptor cells are very different. They don't connect directly to the brain.
John: Interesting. Yeah. So, okay, I have a lot of questions. Actually, I have personal experience, which was a little disturbing to me, which is last week, you know, on Fridays, we have a kind of happy hour here at my house. Just me, my wife and our nanny, where we celebrate that we made it through another week of Covid. And we had Scotch last week. And maybe it's just me. But I really could not smell the smokiness of the Scotch. And I was worried. Did I get exposed? Do I have, you know, some sort of sub-clinical or asymptomatic case? I don't know. Maybe I do. I mean, some sense might be good that I'm not having any serious problems. But actually curious about the warming, cooling that sorts of sensations. Is it normal to lose those as well? Or is that also unusual?
Danielle: It seems very unusual. So we're just in the middle of collecting a data set that shows pretty conclusively that about half the people do who have a positive swab verified case of Covid-19 also lose the sense of keema ceases hot pot of chili pepper, the cool of menthol. And there's some famous videos of people with Covid-19 eating really ghost peppers and really be unmoved by it. It's definitely not everybody. But it's definitely it seems very clear that some people are getting that. And so exactly why the virus is attacking or preventing that those types of sensations, we really don't know. But it seems to be a real thing.
John: Interesting. Is it potentially diagnostic from a medical standpoint? Is it a situation where people can do home tests and be able to mix concentrations of things? Is that something that you are seeing? Is that possible?
Danielle: To unpack that question, so one of the things that we're doing is essentially taking your Scotch test.
John: I hope I don't have it.
Danielle: Well, you've done something really important, which is you've got a standard metric, right? You have your Scotch every Friday. And so this Friday, it's a little I can't smell it very well. And what if next Friday you can't smell it at all, right? So that idea we're taking that into a home test and that's our next big project we're about to launch. So we're doing this globally. So we're asking people to get four things from their house that they always have in their house. Two things that smell. One thing that taste. And then one thing that has the burning tingling sensation and having people do overtime. So that anybody can take this test over time to see if their sense of taste and smell is fading or abruptly changing taste and smell in this chemist-theses business. And so we're collecting that data online and globally. So we've been doing all of our questionnaire work. Right now, we have an earlier questionnaire in 24 languages. So we're really trying to get a global snapshot of what's going on with people. So the long answer to your short questions is yes, the home tests would be really valuable. But the bigger issue you're trying to get at is taste and smell, loss specific, and is it sensitive as a test for Covid-19? So if you're having taste and smell loss, how specific is that a Covid-19 and not the flu? That's an excellent question. And then how sensitive which is, if you don't have those symptoms, are you in the clear? Those are both questions we do not know the answer to yet. But everybody is frantically trying to collect those data today.
John: Fascinating. Yeah, well, this is interesting. But a smart speaker based survey and app, I mean, I don't know how you're collecting the data, but if you want to do it hands-free I maybe ought to volunteer some Aigora time because Upwork has a grant for helping with Covid-19. I could apply for that grant and potentially develop an app for you if you want it. We can talk about that later, if you're interested.
Danielle: Yeah, that sounds like a great idea because of course, one of the issues that people have is trying to answer sit down quietly in their house and answer a survey on their computer. And if there are some sort of way to make that easier, faster, better, smarter. That would be really welcome.
John: Yeah, let's talk about that. It could be interesting. Yeah, you sit down and Alexa gives you the survey as you do. That could be very interesting. Alright, so to get back to kind of the other activities that you've been involved in, how is the rest of your work been affected by the pandemic? Is pretty much life as normal? Or what changes have you seen in how data are being collected nowadays in the sensory world?
Danielle: Radical change. Because the feeling is in our shop that it's going to be a while before we're going to be able to sit down in a conventional sensory booth and spit and sip and spit and snort and do all of those things that we like to do as a sensory professional, right? And so we really are having to, what I call "leftover" our conventional sensory protocols. People come in, they get the stimuli, they sip and spit for us. You know, we write it down. We are lifting that over to something that we can mail to people in their homes and sit down and collect with them. So by Zoom, you know, your lack ideas really provocative, but we're seeing that to do sensory testing is going at least in the short term must change. And so we're doing a lot of work now. We're developing kits like mail out kits that are very, you know, FedEx friendly that can be tossed around. You know, we're learning a lot about how to package things and try to make all of our work now very easy to do by mail and by Zoom so that people will instead of coming in and doing a group task, very common sensory science that'll be mailed out. And we'll have sort of a group Zoom call where we're all sit around with the dark spit cups in and our stimuli and do the test together.
John: Right. Yeah. What's interesting to me about that is that there are actually a number of advantages that seem like they're going to persevere, that they're gonna persist after the crisis is over. One thing that we're thinking about with this remote testing is potentially now you're gonna have more representative populations involved. You're not restricted to the people who can come into your lab so easily. Maybe you're going to get a wider range of people. I mean, right now, is it just the same respondents that you would typically have? Or are you finding that you're able to reach more people through this kind of FedEx friendly, Zoom protocol that you are using?
Danielle: So I think you've hit on a really important thing. And one of the secret confounds to a lot of sensory work that we do is time of day. We want the test Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00. And, you know, that's our workday and our subjects. You know, most of our subjects are working, too, right? So we're end up testing people who fit a very special niche in that they have free time during the day. Who has free time during the day? Very few people. So one of the things about migrating into Zoom, it allows us to test people nationally, internationally. You know, for willing to work out the shipping charges. You know, really, we don't have to combine ourselves to people that live in our area, right? And it has people who are at home after work, right? So it opens up huge spectrum of people that normally it's not going to be the undergraduate coming in between classes anymore, which is a standard fodder for us.
John: Yeah, it is amazing how many psychology studies are 70% female samples or whatever, you know, because that's spoke for coming into the studies, right? So, yeah, that is quite interesting what leads to another topic, which I know you're actually another shared interest of ours, is you're interested in individual differences. And maybe now that you're able to reach wider people, we may see even more of these individual differences. Well, let me just ask you this. What opportunities do you think there are as a sensory researcher? I think about individual differences in taste and smell, and how do you think that we should be considering individual differences in our research?
Danielle: So I listened to your podcast all the time. But I always get hopping mad because so many people say things like, you know, there's variation in the subjects and they sort of talk about it like there's something wrong with their methods or they're like they feel that this is like it somehow detracts from what they're trying to do, that people are different. And I always wonder but there's an opportunity there, right? So whenever you have a product or something you're trying to do and people are radically different. I only see opportunity in that because it's really, I think part of the problem is that lot of times when people see individual differences in their sensory data. They feel like it's something that's gone. That the subject is somehow not understood the task or something "wrong". Right? Because everybody should perceive this as equally sweet or something like that. But the genetics data speak to this really strongly. It's objectively. We can objectively show that based on people's DNA patterns, people experience things differently.
Danielle: And that creates opportunity because you've got different segments of the market. And I think although people tend to smile when I say this, I think marketing to different genotypes is a huge untapped potential. If done evidence based way.
John: Right. Yeah, that is interesting. I mean, it is interesting think about ethnic preferences and to what extent they are learned and to what extent they're related to some of these genetic differences that you're describing. Because, I mean, I'm obviously not going to be one or the other, but it is interesting to think about the interaction between those two factors. So in your research, then, what form does, like, how do you investigate these questions from a genetic standpoint?
Danielle: So the very first thing we do is we go to answer these questions, we get everything we own scientifically and we put it into a very large truck in August and we drive that truck to a place called Twinsburg, Ohio. And the reason we do this is that's where the annual Twins' Festival is. That's just like a big, it's like a country fair, except it's all twins. And so the way we get the sort of ground truth of the genetics is by asking genetically identical twins to taste things or smell things and get their answers and see how well they match between the people who are genetically identical versus the other twins that are no more alike than siblings. So, you know, most of the twins that come to this are identical. But we also get ones that are so-called fraternal twins. So that's ground truth about what's going on. So if you find that twin, the twin pairs cannot taste something and they're always the same. That's a really good sign that you're working on something that's predominantly genetic.
John: Right. This is the monozygotic and dizygotic.
Danielle: Monozygotic and dizygotic, yeah.
John: My wife is actually in behavioral genetics, so probably should know this stuff better myself. She does, in fact get involved with research. So at this at this fair is like the whole parking lot and nothing but researchers who are trying to test twins? It seemed like whole event is subsidized by researchers.
Danielle: Well, I have to say, the organizers tried very hard to give the twins a lot of fun stuff to do. So they put the researchers in a very confined area and they make us fight for space. But we do have long lines because the twins are really the twins come back every year and we get to know them and they love to participate. You know, so we've had a few group, a few rough years, like one year we did a milk project. And so they were tasting milk out in the middle of this football field. And that was not exactly their thing to do. But the year that we do sweetened sweeteners, they're loving us.
John: That's really fine. Okay, so another thing that, of course, you're very well known for is the work that you and Joel did. Maybe you can talk a little bit about this on the research on Amazon reviews, this Joel Mainland, that the two of you collaborated on. What I thought was really quite a revealing analysis when you looked at Amazon reviews, what people were complaining about. Maybe you could tell our listeners about that a little bit, too. I think that's quite interesting, study and it kind of leads to discussion of bias and individual differences that I'd like to kind of come back to. So could you tell our listeners about that a little bit?
Danielle: Absolutely. So it was a dark winter two winters ago, and I didn't have a lot to do on the weekends because I couldn't go biking. And Joel Mainland, my collaborator, had pointed me to this huge data set of Amazon reviews. It's available on Kaggle. And he just pointed out to me and, you know, I didn't think much more about it, but I started to analyze it and I was really trying to find out about bitterness because that's one of the things I care about. And as I was doing this, natural language processing, a text mining, it was one of these things that kept get bashing me in the head because people weren't talking about bitterness at all. People were just talking about sweet and sweetness in foods. And it just kept coming up over and over again. And when I did a more fine grained analysis, we made a really startling discovery, which is that people were really complaining a lot about foods being overly sweet. And so that led to the whole analysis. So your question is this representative? And of course, people who write Amazon reviews are a strange breed in some ways not known for grammar and syntax. I have to say, having read several hundred of these things.
John: Some of them are quite humorous.
Danielle: Yes. Well, absolutely. I mean, it's a very entertaining way to spend a dark day in the winter, I have to say but yes. So this, you know, what can you do to fight that bias? I'm not sure really. It would be really nice to be able to get different data sets to try to explore that same question. So that's, you know, the only thing that I can think to do.
John: And it's quite interesting to think what could be done maybe. I have some ideas because you do have the opportunity to look and see what people have said in their other reviews and what other. Sometimes I'm not sure if you can see what they thought because you definitely can see what they've reviewed. So it might be worth digging into, but that is quite interesting. What gets us back to the question of individual differences in some of the preferences. And one of the hypotheses that I have in this whole Covid-19 situation is that people are gonna be forced to try things that they wouldn't normally try like myself. You know, I normally drink sparkling water and it wasn't available. So I got tonic water. Now I'm drinking tonic water everyday. And it turns out I actually like tonic water. And now I couldn't get tonic water, so I got soda and tonic with ginger flavor. And actually it's really good. And I probably keep buying it. So I mean, a general question is how things are gonna be different after the crisis is over. But how do you see that playing out? How do you see people's behavior patterns may be changing or even their, either their preferences or their awareness of their preferences being affected by this crisis?
Danielle: Yeah, that's a really interesting observation that you just made. And of course, that has a lot rings really true for me because I've been coming home from the grocery store and my husband will kind of look at me like, well, why did you get this? Why did you get that? That's unusual. And I'd say you don't buy what you want. Now you buy what they have. And this is what they have today.
Danielle: So that's it. And it has really shifted some of the things we eat and drink just because we're buying what there is not necessarily what we would have normally wanted. So, I mean, what you're pointing out is that there's been a cataclysmic shift in what people or how people are living their lives. And, of course,there has kind of meta issues well beyond sensory science. But I guess the nice thing is it really does, you know, blasts us out of our ruts to try different new things in you know, more than I do that people really are creatures of habit when it comes to food and drink. So it'll be very interesting. It would be wonderful to be able to analyze all of the grocery receipts through the through that to see what people are doing differently and trying something new. And does it stick or not? That's a really interesting question.
John: Right. Somebody's individual differences that may have been latent. Maybe it's hard to get expressed after the crisis because or even during the crisis, you know. Well, I mean, one thing I've been reading about is that plant-based protein consumption is now on the rise because you can't always get the meat that you want. There's issues with meat production. So people are like whatever I'll try the plant-based sausage and some people are going to like those items.
Danielle: Yes. So my husband is an Englishman and he is a devoted carnivore from way back his old school carnivore. I got the shock of my life because we bought some of the plant-based, the new plant-based meat products. And he likes them. He likes them better than regular meat in some cases. And I have never been I never give up on marriage because, you know, you could always love them. We've been married nearly thirty five years, right? You could always learn something new.
John: That's a very good title for the show. Never give up on marriage. I won't do that so don't worry. Okay. So we think about the kind of putting this all together. Your view is the crisis is going to go on for a while. And it seems that we need to adapt. What do you think will stick around and what,I guess the question is, what will the new normal look like when we finally come out of this? What do you think is going to be, what will we keep that we've learned during the crisis and what we will be happy to get back to?
Danielle: I think that what we'll keep is at the script is now flipped. Whenever we're thinking about human sensory testing. We're not going to ask. We're not going to go first to having people be tested face to face. We're gonna go first to be having tested people remotely. And if that doesn't work, then we'll go to face to face. I think that's permanently changed, at least is permanently changed how I view. How I'm going to get my sensory work done. And I think we'll never go back to people we're dragged into Zoom kicking and screaming or other remote things. And you know, we've all got the you know, the aunt's or the uncle or the people who are not tech savvy, who are now zooming around like a boss, right? So we don't go back from that. People learn. You know, so that's going to be available to people. You know, two months ago, if I'd asked my elderly relative to do a test by Zoom, I would've got a blank stickier stare and fear. And now I'm getting, "Oh, sure, send me an invite". Right? We're not going to go back from that. So I think that's going to be the single biggest change.
John: Yeah, it is interesting that there's been a lot of education during the crisis. I had Cordelia Running on the show. I don't know if you listen to that. So yeah, she was talking about the use of technology to educate subjects that now, you know, you have to I mean, this is one of the theme for me of the fourth industrial revolution is decentralization. But the idea that you're pushing capability out into the, you know, the edges instead of it being centralized in some sort of like large organization, things are being decentralized into the individuals more and more. And I actually I think that the coronavirus situation has accelerated that because we've been forced to be decentralized, right? So many of these things you're talking come down to decentralization to go along with that, now, is education. That not just are we entertaining people, but we are having to educate them to get them to engage in our anti-periphery. So, you know, actually we're amazingly almost out of time here. I would like to get your thoughts on the like what steps should people be taking now so that as they come out of the crisis, they're able to kind of transition smoothly into the new normal. What do you recommend for your students, for example? What are you recommending that your students spend their time learning and doing in the present moment?
Danielle: Yeah. So we have been spending all of our time in what we call our club, which is a club that we have where we meet to learn big data skills. And so we have just really seen the value of learning how to analyze data bigger, better and faster. So we're spending all of our time becoming better data scientists, even people who think that's not for them.
John: I see. That's really interesting. And then you think that no matter what happens, no matter what the future holds, you won't regret learning to program an R that you'll be just more capable.
Danielle: Absolutely. And we're seeing that actually with this global consortium on my part of because we've all taken the pledge to do reproducible scripts and we're using R and Python and some of our older members are just flummoxed because, you know, that's just not something that they've learned. And so they feel very intimidated by an R markdown file.
John: Right. Yeah. But, you know, once you get used to it, it is amazing how much more productive you can be. Yeah. I mean, automated recording. I just we built a dashboard with 62 slides and like three seconds you click some things, make some choices, preview as you're gonna get outcomes report. It's just amazing and you can never do that with more traditional old-fashioned approach. Okay, so Danielle before we wrap up here, so you talked a little about programming. Do you have any last advice for our listeners? I know that, I mean it is really is an honor to have you on the show. I'm very happy that you agreed to do this. So any last wisdom you'd like to impart to our listeners?
Danielle: I guess the only thing I'd say is particularly to students, but I think it applies to everybody is don't put yourself in a box. You know, some people think, oh, I'm not a data person, I'm not a programming person, I'm not a science person. And I think that thinking is old fashioned. You know, it's getting to the point now where all of our biologists, all of our sensory scientists are also highly competent or they can be a data and data analysis and strategy. So I say don't don't put yourself in that box that I'm not a data person box.
John: Yes. I mean, that's a great advice. And if someone's get in touch with you, how can they contact you? What are your main modes of connection to the outside world, would you say?
Danielle: To get in touch, you only have to remember two words. Reed, my last name and where I am at, which is Monell with an M so just type in Reed and Monell to any Google search engine and you'll turn up my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
John: And we'll also put your LinkedIn and Twitter links into the show notes. Can people send you a message on LinkedIn? Is that okay if they've got questions?
Danielle: They can definitely send me a message on LinkedIn or they can just email me directly at email@example.com and I'm happy to answer any queries that I get.
John: Okay. And you all have postdocs at Monell, do you also have graduate student? What point is the education begin? What would people if they wanted to come and work with you, what would they be applying to do?
Danielle: Three opportunities for that. So we have postdoctoral fellowships and those are we have an open slot right now, actually. So that's one thing to do. The second thing is we have a summer internship program, which, as you might imagine is going remote this summer. So we're going to be analyzing a ton of big data. So that's another way to join. And then the third thing which might be relevant for your audience is we also have visiting scientists who come from industry who come and spend a month, three months, six months. We've had all types of people, artists, other scientists, people who want to learn sensory. So that's a terrific avenue for people who are in industry, but hoping to get a little bit of extra hands-on training.
John: That's great. I can't think of a better mentor for sensory scientist than you. Honestly, I really can't think of anyone better. So I would say, yeah, if you're listening to this, I actually get a lot of comments from like students will sending messages say they listen to the show and they like it. If you're wrapping up your PhD and you're gonna go try to do your postdoc somewhere, I would highly recommend that you apply to go to Monell. So this is a great, Danielle. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Last things you want to say?
Danielle: No, I think it's just time for a nap.
John: Okay. Thanks a lot. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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