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Sniffing It Out

February 12, 2018

During assembly on Monday, February 12, Dr. Barani Raman talked about his pioneering work to understand how the brain processes information in olfactory function. His work to develop an "electronic nose" would have applications in medicine and homeland security (for example, using dogs to sniff out the presence of a bomb or detect a medical issue that our human noses are not sensitive enough to perceive).

Raman was introduced by the STEM Speaker Series coordinator Martha Keeley and by senior Melanie Molen. He received his bachelor's degree in computer engineering from the University of Madras, Chennai, India, and master's and doctorate degrees in computer science from Texas A&M University. He then completed joint post-doctoral fellowships with the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Raman is currently an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the recipient of the 2011 Wolfgang Gopel Award from the International Society for Olfaction and Chemical Sensing, a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and the 2016 IEEE Donald G. Fink Award.

Dr. Raman's research interests include sensory and systems neuroscience, sensor-based machine olfaction, machine learning, biomedical intelligent systems, bio-robotics and dynamical systems. He is fascinated by the insect olfactory system, and his lab is using relatively simple models of olfaction — fruit flies and locusts — to study their design and computing principles. 

His presentation told the story of how the simple pattern of coupled oscillations, which he illustrated with a relatable example about Romeo and Juliet, has been discovered over and over in a variety of natural contexts. Scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for recognizing this same pattern in understanding how nerve signals are transmitted and how circadian rhythms function. Dr. Raman's lab has discovered that the same pattern functions in the sense of smell.

He concluded by summing up the questions his lab is working to answer.

  • How is the information about the external environment detected by biological sensors?
  • How are sensory stimuli represented in the brain? 
  • How does neural information translate to behavior?
  • Can we build biologically inspired sensors and software for parallel engineering applications?