Hitting the brain on the nose

New international network explores how odors lead to action

August 18, 2020

How do odors wafting in the air, from fragrant fruits to foul stenches, guide and change behavior?

This fall, Arizona State University will join institutions in a new international research network centered on the science of smell, called Odor2Action. The project will investigate how animals use odors from their environment to inform and guide their behavior, which could lead to a deeper understanding of the function and evolution of the human brain. Brian Smith, inaugural Trustee Professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences and a part of its Social Insect Research Group, will lead a group of researchers to investigate how animals use sensory structures such as nose or antennae to detect and discriminate important odors in their environment. Download Full Image

The Odor2Action network is part of the National Science Foundation’s Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience (NeuroNex) Program. The $20.2 million award encompasses 16 scientists from 16 prestigious institutions around the world, with support also from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the UK Research and Innovation Medical Research Council. The project will also include work from over 50 undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral researchers over it’s five-year period.

The network is composed of three interdisciplinary research groups designed to investigate one segment of the end-to-end process of olfactory processing. The process begins with sensory input, called active sensing, then the central processing of the scent information, or sensory coding, and finally to activation of physical behavior, called sensorimotor circuits.

Brian Smith, inaugural Trustee Professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences and a part of its Social Insect Research Group, is the lead investigator for the active sensing group. They will investigate how animals use sensory structures such as nose or antennae to detect and discriminate important odors in their environment.

“I am interested in how brains transform the physical olfactory world into patterns of electrical activity and motor responses to help us understand and adapt to that world,” Smith said. “But I have always been concerned that we do not yet understand the fully the statistical structure of our physical world well enough to fully understand the neural activity that we can now measure. This award now lets me bring studies of the structure of the phyiscal world of odors together with advances my lab has made in the last 30 years in understanding how the brain represents and learns about important odors.”

Understanding how the brain works and produces behavior is a complex research challenge with far-reaching potential. Examining all of the steps involved in how odors are detected and encoded in the brain, and how these stimuli then produce an active, behavioral response in model species such as fruit flies and mice, will improve our understanding of these same steps in the human brain.

“The chemical sensing process (i.e. smell) evolved in the very earliest life forms on Earth,” said John Crimaldi, lead principal investigator on the network and professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The idea here is that all brain evolution has taken place in the presence of chemical sensing. And so, it's thought to be a primal portal from which to view brain function.”

Understanding how the human brain interprets odors to produce a behavioral response serves as a valuable model for the more general question of how the brain takes a variety of information gathered from diverse sources and methods and translates them into actions. While other systems such as memory, locations and representations of visual objects develop over many stages of processing, the system of odor processing is far more compact. This provides a unique opportunity to achieve a truly comprehensive understating of the end-to-end process.

Collaborators include Caltech, Penn State University, Duke University, Salk Institute, University of Utah, University of Pittsburgh, NYU School of Medicine, McGill University, Scripps Research, Arizona State University, Francis Crick Institute, University of Hertfordshire, Yale University and Weill Cornell. Include link to NSF general announcement here.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


ASU Law welcomes its most highly credentialed and diverse class

August 18, 2020

Ranked a top seven public law school in the nation and No. 24 among all law schools according to U.S. News & World Report, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University continues to be a premier choice for law school students around the country.

Continuing its streak, ASU Law welcomes its most highly credentialed class for the third year in a row. The incoming fall 2020 Juris Doctor students have a median LSAT score of 165 and a median GPA of 3.83, ASU Law’s highest ever and up from last year’s 164 and 3.81. man wearing see through mask speaking to class ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester presents to students in-person and via Zoom at orientation ahead of classes starting Aug. 19. Download Full Image

The class is also the most diverse in ASU Law’s history with one-third identifying as students of color.

The group hails from more than 100 undergraduate institutions, 40 states and seven countries, with more than 60% from outside Arizona. Forty-seven percent of the students are women and more than 10% identify as LGBTQ. In addition, nearly 30 students are the first in their immediate family to graduate college.

On top of setting records for entering credentials and diversity, ASU Law again broke its record for JD applications at more than 4,700, a 28% increase over last year, while nationally applications remained nearly flat.

“While these numbers are impressive and drive us to continue our growth as one of the nation’s best law schools, I am even more humbled by the magnitude of students wanting to be a part of ASU Law in these unprecedented times,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “The current health and economic conditions of our country, and the state of Arizona, put pressures on our students that no class has had to face in recent memory. Our faculty and staff are working hard every day to provide our incoming students with the most exceptional law school experience possible – in the way they feel most comfortable. That is why we are giving every student the choice of how they want to participate through in-person classroom experience (ASU immersion), online (ASU Sync) or a hybrid of both. The safety of our students, faculty and staff continues to be our top priority, and we look forward to making this a strong year.”

A total of 265 students will be taking first-year JD classes, and every first-year JD student is awarded a scholarship once they are admitted. Students have the opportunity to tailor their education with over 250 unique courses and several programs and externships to match their interests.

students being taught and physically distancing in a classroom

Incoming ASU Law students had the opportunity to participate while physically distancing and wearing masks during orientation sessions before classes begin Aug. 19.

ASU Law also offers nearly 50 student organizations, many appealing to diverse personal and career interests. These organizations include the Asian Pacific American Law Students, Black Law Students Association, Diverse Students Coalition, Environmental Law Society, Federalist Society, Women Law Students’ Association, and many others.

For individuals who want to expand their knowledge of the U.S. legal system and enhance their career opportunities without becoming an attorney, ASU Law offers a one-year Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree. The MLS program enrolled 31 new MLS students and over 200 MLS online students. The MLS graduate program continues to identify trending industry needs to provide students with new focus areas of legal study, such as contract management, corporate and health care compliance, construction law and Indian gaming and self-governance law programs, all without becoming a lawyer.

The Master of Sports Law and Business program that blends sports, law and business welcomed 54 new students, including those who are part of the Veterans Sports Law and Business program. Additionally, the Master of Laws (LLM) program welcomed six new students.

More than half of incoming students in all of ASU Law’s master's degree programs identify as people of color and over 60% are female. Fifty-six percent also hail from out of state.

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law