Ann-Sophie Barwich, PhD (Exon)
I am a bench philosopher and historian of science and the senses, specializing in neuroscience and cognition, biology and chemistry. My work is on current and past developments in olfactory research (1600 onwards, with main focus on the developments from 1991 to the present).
I am currently working on a 3-year postdoctoral project as a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at the Center for Science and Society, Columbia University.
My side interest is (the history of) magic. I am fascinated by the implications of conjuring tricks for modeling the mind and perception in cognitive neuroscience.
Contact: ab4221_at_columbia.edu Twitter: @smellosopher
From the Air to the Brain:
Laboratory Routines in Olfaction
How do we smell? The answer to this question promises new insight into neuroscience. The discovery of the olfactory receptors by Buck and Axel in 1991 catapulted olfaction into core neurobiological research. With the identification of the receptors as G-protein coupled receptors olfactory research became affiliated with a wide range of cell signaling studies. While a lot of fundamental questions about olfactory processing are still open to dispute, the consensus is that the olfactory pathway will facilitate a greater neurobiological understanding of signal processing. One of the open questions that attracted greater attention over the past ten years is the longstanding problem of how the brain ‘maps’ smells.
My postdoc project investigates the role of scientific expertise in current laboratory-based neuroscience. By tracing the emergence, success, and decline of standard lab routines in research on the sense of smell, I analyze how cognitive and behavioral patterns influence scientific decision-making.
Its current dynamics and susceptibility to the revision of its core premises makes olfactory research an excellent example to study the ambiguity of determining what is a reliable research strategy. One of the key reasons for the historical marginalization of olfaction was the experimental difficulty of conducting research into olfaction: How do you measure odors? Another reason is that smell was long considered a declining and "lower sense" that lacks cognitive significance. (To be sure, nothing could be further from the truth!) The contemporary relevance of research in olfaction is twofold: It lies in is its capability for methodological innovations and its potential to serve a new model sense for understanding the structure and content of perception.
I received my PhD at the University of Exeter (Egenis, The Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences) under the supervision of John Dupré in 2013, before taking up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research with Werner Callebaut as my scientific advisor. My thesis examined classification and modeling strategies through which scientists have linked odors to a material basis (botanical, chemical, molecular-biological, neurophysiological), and my previous postdoctoral project concerned the role of methodology in measurement and wet-lab discovery.
As a Scholar in the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program at the Center for Science and Society, Columbia University, I focus on the role of ‘research routines’ in scientific training and practice. I work with the olfactory neuroscience lab of Stuart Firestein.
Paulsen's ammonia experiments (19th century).
Image from Zwaardemaker (1895): Die Physiologie des Geruchs
Animation by Lan A. Li (Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University): Lan's website
Paulsen (1882) tested whether specific parts or the entire nasal cavity are involved in odor perception. Using a human head (corpse), Paulsen plastered its nasal cavity with litmus paper and imitated the airflow through an artificial breathing device. Injecting the air with ammonia, he traced the airflow pattern and visualized its pathway.