1: A $225,000 fragrance turned me onto STEM | the irony of initially rejecting the idea of becoming a doctor

Show notes

The fidelity of this transcript to the audio may not be 100%. This episode should be as clear, if not clearer, in this written form, excluding small parts not transcribed from the audio.

Episode 2: $A 225,000 fragrance turned me onto STEM slash the irony of initially rejecting instructions to become a doctor

Is that Ursinus Minor? No, that’s Urscience Minority.

Super lost because as some of you know, after you a graduate a job isn’t guaranteed. Looking for a job is…I don’t want to say a reason to cry yourself to sleep at night.

This is a podcast about a young female. This is a podcast about a young, black, Muslim female’s journey (laugh) from the world of humanities to the world of science at Princeton and beyond cuz I graduated already so yeah.

Isa G’s “Going Home” returns: “looking for happiness and losing it to feeling lost. So, I’m walking on the path…”

Teaser: I searched in the Princeton University website either smell or fragrance or something to that effect because I’m basic...what back flips am I gonna do.

“…Quran my GPS. Waiting to go home. Allah help me SOS…”


It was never my plan to major in any science. My career goal in life up until the time I had to choose my major at Princeton was to become a writer, maybe a journalist, so I had no designs to enter any STEM field. In fact, STEM was almost anathema to me. And despite this, I… I mean I did waffle but ultimately decided to begin the premed track my freshman year.

I let fear get the best of me. I thought writing was not a serious professional path. So, ironically my reason for wanting to pursue neuroscience and major in Molecular biology and essentially drop writing…drop my plan to major in English or Comparative Literature. Because even when I wrote the application to Princeton my main thing was I want to become a writer, I want to major in English.

So, my first year I was told that every freshman had to take a writing seminar. And I didn’t want to because my ego got the better of me and I felt like I’m good at writing. Why do I need to take a writing seminar? And not in an obnoxious way. Just… I just felt that because that was a skill that I had spent so many hours honing over the course of my...essentially my entire life. It just seemed unnecessary to me. Um so, I waited until the last semester I could take it, which was freshman spring.

The generosity of Princeton was that they at least let you pick from a range of topics. The one I chose was called “Accounting for Taste.” Taste as in what you deem to be good or beautiful when assessing material goods. So, for the final paper for this class we had license to write about anything that could fit within the confines of the subject of the seminar.

I was just confused like oh what am I going to write about. I have other finals to consider.

Somehow, I thought of fragrance. Honestly, even back then I was never a fragrance person. Like I never bought perfume, sought perfume. Um soap was enough fragrance for me. Thinking of fragrance was not from direct experience.

Then I also remembered a theory we covered in class called Veblen’s theory of Conspicuous Consumption. And Veblen, he’s a social theorist. Basically, it says that luxury items are consumed for the purpose of demonstrating your economic prowess.

I did some preliminary research and I learned that the fragrance industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

And so, I thought to myself doesn’t that contradict Veblen’s theory because fragrance is unseen. You can’t show off to someone that… There’s a fragrance called uh “Imperial Majesty” by Clive Christian. It costs $225,000. That’s almost a quarter of a million dollars for a 16.9-ounce bottle. Imagine those Poland Spring water bottles. That’s how much this fragrance costs. If you spritz that on yourself and walk outside no one will know that you dropped almost a quarter of a million dollars to smell like that. Ok. And there’s only ten collector’s edition bottles in the entire world. So, it’s not even a fragrance that is so ubiquitous in society that even someone who can’t afford to buy that fragrance would recognize it. Right. It’s not Axe. (not directed against users of Axe) like… So, in my mind, this was the perfect argument for my paper. Right. The fragrance industry and any fragrance, theoretically, complicates Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption because you can’t see fragrance. It’s invisible. The only people who would see the actual bottle containing the fragrance would be people that you show it to. But honestly, that bottle is probably in your room at home. It’s not something you carry with you outside. Like who’s gonna carry a $225,000 bottle with them outside. And bring it out of whatever place they’re keeping it and show it off to people. Why? Why?

So, this was basically the argument for my final paper. Now, the place I learned about this Imperial Majesty, this fragrance, was online. It was a forbes.com article. I couldn’t limit myself to internet articles. So, I had to go to the library.

Before I went to the library, I searched in the Princeton University website either smell or fragrance or something to that effect because I’m basic like (laugh) uh you know what back flips am I gonna do. I just need to write this paper and focus on this MOL 214 class that honestly, I didn’t go to a number of times because it was at 8:30 am in the morning and I just could not. I just could not. I just could not do it.

And the place where they had this class. The lecture hall was so dimly lit and so warm that even when I could get up to go to class that early in the morning... it was the perfect environment for sleeping, ok. My attention span at the hours of the day when I’m even awake and the caffeine has reached its peak plasma concentration, my attention span is weak then. So, can you imagine for an 8:30 am class.

So, I went to Firestone and–that’s a library at Princeton—I checked out these two books that came up on my search. And they were both by the same author (Chandler Burr). One of them was called “The Perfect Scent” and the other was called “The Emperor of Scent.” And so for “The Emperor of Scent,” he was describing the journey of this scientist and the science of the smell and the world of science regarding smell, the people. And in the Perfect Scent it was more about the fragrance industry, how fragrances are brought to market.

So, in “the Emperor of scent, he was basically saying that we know how sight works and we know how hearing works, but we still don’t know how smell works. And he was saying that smell is remarkable because it should be impossible for us to even smell. Right. And you may be thinking, I can smell. What do you mean by it should be impossible for me to smell? The thing is that they way every other system in our body works, smell is different from it.

The other part of the reason it should be impossible is that theoretically a human being can smell any smell, can do instantaneously. Imagine if you could learn anything in an instant, without buying the textbook, without going to lecture, a YouTube video. Imagine if you could just encounter it and then know it as soon as you encountered it and then do that for anything in the universe.

So, that’s why he was saying it should be impossible for the human being. And he compared it to two systems in our body. I won’t go into each topic he covered in that book. I will go into at least this one. So, take digestion, take immunity. Obviously, both are critical.  You need to be able to digest food and you need to be able to defend your body. These are non-negotiable. Your immune system is such that it can respond to a broad repertoire of inputs, of invaders, of antigens but it needs time to create that response, to create the antibody to destroy those antigens. And I should note that these antigens can come from within your own self. Right. Autoimmune disorders.

If you give your body enough time, it can create the response. The digestive system is such that it doesn’t need a week, two weeks, three weeks to respond to an input but it has a limited number of inputs to which it can respond. That’s why you can’t digest cellulose. When you eat celery--The other component of celery is cellulose. You can’t digest that. Dogs can’t—the example that Chandler Burr gave, the author—they can’t digest chocolate.

Smell is interesting because it has somehow combined the best of your immune system and the best of your ability to digest food. Ok. It can respond immediately to an input. It doesn’t need one, two, three, four, five weeks to smell. And it can respond—even one paper in 2014, in the journal Nature, the lead author was Bushdid, estimated that we can detect a minimum of one trillion odorants. An odorant is a molecule. A volatile molecule. And a volatile molecule is just a molecule that exists in the, Chandler Burr called it “the smellable size range.” A molecule has to be a certain size for you to be able to smell it. It can’t be humongous. It has to be in a certain range of sizes. And She was estimating that humans being can detect a minimum of a trillion odorants. What other system in our body do you know that has a lower limit of a trillion inputs.

Now a paper later came out by Gerkin and Castro and basically, they were saying the model that Bushdid and her colleagues used in that paper (is incorrect); if you interpret it correctly, a trillion would not be a lower limit, it would be an upper limit. But that’s besides the point. The point is that…Not “besides the point.” I’m not trying to throw shade at them. The point is that theoretically a human being can smell any input. That’s the remarkable part.