IFRA Forum 2017: Scents and Sensibility

All photos by Lucy Ray

There aren’t many events where you could listen to lectures containing detailed descriptions of human excretions; the importance of matching packaging font choice to the quality of the contents; an explanation on exactly how dogs can sniff out prostate cancer from urine; and learn why some people are simply irresistible to mosquitoes - all in one day. At this year’s International Fragrance Association (IFRA) forum, which took place on October 12, 2017 at the Royal Society of London, this was just a fraction of what we heard.

The forum also featured a speed-presentation on creative city mapping, and a designer’s view on how cities can be charted and then represented by their odors; a look at what synaesthesia really is; and a fascinating lecture on scents in 19th century art.

Sniffing it Out – Scents and the Animal Kingdom

Dr. Claire Guest, Medical Detection Dogs

Turns out, Dr. Guest’s story had a very personal beginning – her own dog saved her life by detecting her breast cancer early enough for successful intervention. It is no wonder, then, that Claire’s presentation was one of the most passionate and informative of the day – I doubt anyone left the forum without being impressed by the research projects in question, advances in science of medical detection by dogs, and by the skill of the dogs involved. We were also shown short videos of the dogs in action, and Claire explained how the field has progressed.

The work towards improving the diagnostic methods of prostate cancer is impressive: At this time, the tests are shockingly ineffective in comparison to what the dogs are capable of finding. Currently, the only available blood test for prostate cancer has a 75 percent false positive risk, whereas using specially trained sniffer dogs has only a 5 percent risk. The dogs have a 98 percent detection rate of prostate cancer from 2ml of urine.

Each dog is trained to detect only one disease so there is no confusion about what the dog is indicating. There are also medical alert dogs who work with diabetics and help patients prevent diabetic coma by alerting them to drops in blood sugar.

Investigations are ongoing for applying medical detection dogs to Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, viruses, bacteria and malaria.

Dr. Guest obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology in 1986, followed by a MSc in psychology by research. In 1992, Claire became a full member of the Association of Pet Behavior Counselors, and subsequently became chair for three years. From 1987, Claire worked full time at the charity, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, leaving her final post of director of operations and research in May 2007. She has been involved in the training of dogs for tasks involving scent for over 20 years.

Currently Claire is chief executive and director of operations for the charity Medical Detection Dogs.

Professor James Logan, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Professor Logan’s talk was enigmatically entitled, “How to Make a Mosquito Invisibility Cloak,” and alas, we’re not quite there yet, but if anyone will get there, James will. He is currently looking into novel applications of the research he has undertaken, which involve developing bed bug traps from studying bed bug excrement; as well as figuring out how to combat the issues facing repellants for malaria-carrying mosquito (they evolve to resist typical repellents too fast).

Mosquitoes detect the carbon dioxide of our breath, and other chemicals we naturally emit – apparently, they are particularly attracted to lactic acid and the ‘cheesy’ odor of feet. In fact, some particularly smelly French cheeses cause mosquitoes to land on them and attempt to bite.

The profile of volatile compounds is different for people who repel mosquitoes – and to put some of this into test, Professor Logan took one of his pals – who reported never getting bitten and who, also, may no longer be a pal – to the west coast of Scotland at the height of the mosquito season. Over a few days, he and his team observed that the subject was not bitten more than once or twice, while everyone else on the trip were covered in bites. On return, Professor Logan then placed his friend inside a survival bag and captured his unique body odor profile for further analysis.

James has also been researching whether the malaria parasite is manipulating its hosts, and discovered that people in different stages of malaria infection were differently attractive to mosquitoes.

Professor Logan has more than 20 years of experience both in the laboratory and the field – both in the UK and overseas – of controlling insects of medical and veterinary importance. James has a first-class honors degree in Zoology from the University of Aberdeen and an award-winning PhD in investigating why some people are bitten more than others by mosquitoes and midges, which was based at Rothamsted Research. James runs his own research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as ARCTEC – a world-leading independent test center for the evaluation and development of arthropod pest control technologies.

Scent and our Surroundings

Dr. Christina Bradstreet, The National Gallery

Dr. Bradstreet’s talk, entitled “Art, Smell and Sanitation,” was a colorful and insightful exploration of how 19th century ideas about smell influenced the art of the time, and why there was such a change in the way smell was discussed and depicted after the turn of the century. Whilst placing a very detailed talk on the cess pits, slop buckets, sewers, horse manure, soot and floating corpses right after lunch may not have been the best idea, the talk really got us hooked on exactly how art and scent interrelate in this context.

The idea of linking death, poverty, prostitution and general moral depravity to smell was prevalent in 19th century art. Once you really appreciate how ideas of miasma and all smell, whether good or bad, being a disease were at the heart of people’s relationship with odor, you can begin to understand that most good odors were drowned out by the bad, and even good odors would have appeared suspicious.

The Great Stink of the River Thames during the summer of 1858 was linked in art to depictions of depravity. The need for olfactory neutrality for perfume to be appreciated as art was commented on by Septimus Piesse, who reportedly said that sanitation can liberate the nose to enjoy perfume.

From 1890s onwards, good smells were promoted as therapeutic. The rising acceptance of germ theory and discovery of viruses also gave rise to improved personal hygiene and sanitation, and the smell of violet water and Pear’s soap eventually took over the odor of slop buckets.

The idea of linking death, poverty, prostitution and general moral depravity to smell was prevalent in 19th century art.

Christina is in the process of publishing her book Scented Visions: Smell in British Art 1850-1910 (and is currently looking for a publisher). Her PhD on this subject was awarded Birkbeck’s Anne Humphrey’s Prize for 19th century studies. She was director of career services at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and acting head of history at Godolphin and Latymer. She is currently the courses and events programmer at the National Gallery.

Kate McLean, Canterbury Christ Church University, and Dr. Daniele Quercia, Bell Labs Cambridge

In this double session, we heard from the scent exploring, city-mapping designer Kate McLean, whose inspiring approach to tracking sources of odor in cities has led to collaboration with IFF; as well as a deeper analysis into how the characteristic odors of a city can be best charted and visually represented.

Kate is program director for graphic design at Canterbury Christ Church University, and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, where she researches human-centered olfactory perceptions of cities worldwide and methods by which this information can be rendered visible. She runs smellscape mapping workshops and leads smell walks around the world. She co-edited a book, Designing with Smell: Practices, Techniques and Challenges (2017).

We also heard a speedy run through of Dr. Daniele Quercia’s innovative and fun project, “Happy Maps” – a gamified system of gathering vast amounts of data from members of the general public and applying the data to generate different kinds of city maps, filtered by – for example – odors.

Daniele leads the social dynamics group at Bell Labs in Cambridge. He has been named one of Fortune Magazine’s 2014 Data All-Stars, and spoke about Happy Maps at TED. He was a research scientist at Yahoo Labs, a Horizon senior researcher at the University of Cambridge, and postdoctoral associate at the department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He received his PhD from University College London. His thesis was sponsored by Microsoft Research and was nominated for BCS Best British PhD dissertation in computer science.

Scent and Psychology

Dr. Clare Jonas, University of East London

What exactly is synaesthesia and can you induce it? What are the differences between cross-modal associations and synaesthesia? Clare’s talk explored the ways in which most of us experience associations between the senses. She discussed how some associations aren’t necessarily dependent on learned behavior, and that perceptions of synaesthetes generally differ from those without the mixing of the senses.

In synaesthesia, there is a certain internal consistency of trigger – and the effect tends to be experienced rather than just associative. Nevertheless, in non-synaesthetes, high pitched sounds tend to be associated with light colors, low pitched with dark, and the famous Kiki-Bouba test tends to work across cultures and age groups (even in pre-reading age children, removing the possibility that the sounds are associated with shapes that match the letters which form the words – Kiki, with the sharp edges and Bouba with the round form).

Clare is a lecturer in psychology at the University of East London where she does research on human perception and synaesthesia.  

Sarah Hyndman, Type Tasting

Is it possible to match typefaces to smells? Apparently so, according to Sarah Hyndman, whose experiments with ‘type tasting’ events have led her to working on collaborative research studies with the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford.

Sarah is the founder of Type Tasting and a graphic designer, author and a public speaker. She gained a distinction for her Master’s degree in Typo/Graphics at the London College of Communication (University of the Arts). Her talk included a section on just where the line seems intersect enhancing a product by its packaging, and actually creating the opposite effect from the one intended: if the packaging is too fancy compared to the contents, customers end up being even more disappointed than they would have been if the packaging had been as plain as the contents. Improving packaging only works when it is kept reasonably close to the quality of the product.

Sarah runs experiential events, talks and typography workshop via her Type Tasting studio in North London.

Until Next Time

IFRA UK showed us once again that spending a day out of the office or lab at this event is completely worth it, and there is always something interesting on the menu. The talks always educate, inspire and spark curiosity. I am sure many of us are looking forward to next year’s Forum already.


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