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The science of smell—stop and remember the roses

Image: Brennan Terhune-Cotter (left) and Eric Epstein pose with Mark Sommers from RIT with their second place team award certificates at the 2012 RIT National Science Fair held March 23-25.

Brennan Terhune-Cotter (left) and Eric Epstein pose with Mark Sommers from RIT with their second place team award certificates at the 2012 RIT National Science Fair held March 23-25.

The MSSD team of Eric Epstein and Brennan Terhune-Cotter won second place at 2012 RIT National Science Fair held March 23-25 for their research presentation entitled, "Passing the Smell Test (A.K.A. Stop and Remember the Roses)." Epstein and Terhune-Cotter's study focused on how effective odor stimuli are as a retrieval cue for recognition-based memory.

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and National Technical Institute for the Deaf announced the winners of their seventh annual RIT National Science Fair for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students on their contest website. More than 70 contestants from 20 states brought their exhibits to Rochester during the competition. The goal of the science fair is to promote interest in technology, science, engineering, and math among 6-12 graders who are deaf or hard of hearing. As second place winners in the high school team division, Epstein and Terhune-Cotter received a $300 award and plaque.

"The science fair competition gave me a better idea of the programs that RIT/NTID offered. We got to meet with many other peers, students, and faculty members of RIT/NTID. We saw plenty of impressive experiments involving solar panels and beta fishes, ground meat and batteries," said Epstein.

Epstein and Terhune-Cotter presented their research findings before a panel of eight judges. Their hypothesis was, "If subjects are exposed to a distinct odor when presented with visual stimuli, then associative memory will strengthen recognition of the visual stimuli." They conducted their research with a pool of 30 MSSD students divided into three study groups who performed memory tasks. The experiment focused on the nature of explicit memory which describes the ability to consciously process stimuli. The subjects were tested for their associative ability to recognize visual stimuli (patterns of letters and patterns of abstract shapes) in the presence of a distinct scent (Febreeze Spring and Renewal air freshener). One group (the control group) worked on memory tasks with no sensory stimulation; the second group was exposed to a scent halfway through the tests; and the third group was exposed to the scent for the full test.

The findings of their research ran contrary to their hypothesis. About halfway through the testing, the data from Test #1, #2, and #3 revealed a trend that contradicted the hypothesis. The subjects scored low on the tests that introduced a distinct odor halfway through the experiment. Statistically, Test #1, which had excluded Febreeze in its entirely, and Test #3, shared similar results. The hypothesis that a distinct scent will enhance recognition-based memory was incorrect. Despite the limitations of the experiment, the data did reveal a significant feature of memory. Memory benefits from consistency in the environment. The group that took Test #2 had the lowest composite score. This finding reveals how changes in the environment can easily disrupt memory.

"Our study methods could undergo a major rethinking. If subjects retain information better in an environment that is consistent, then students could benefit from a classroom atmosphere in their bedrooms," joked Epstein.

One of the other factors that Epstein and Terhune-Cotter found also merits further exploration. Because the participants were all deaf, they feel it would be interesting to explore how deaf and hearing people retain visual stimuli. "The data has shown that subjects consistently fared better with recognizing shapes rather than letters. Perhaps a similar trend would be observed among hearing people," said Epstein.

The experience at RIT gave them both an opportunity to network and socialize with students from around the country. "We had a chance to visit labs at RIT, meet with college students majoring in science, and see what our peers are doing in science at other schools," said Terhune-Cotter.

The two students will be turning their intellectual prowess to a different use as team members in the upcoming National Academic Bowl held at Gallaudet University April 12-16.