Raman seeks to replicate sense of smell with NSF CAREER Award

Recreating the senses, such as the sense of smell or touch, is no small feat for scientists, as it relies on understanding how the brain processes information.

Barani Raman will study neural activity in the fruit fly brain, shown here in current research.

A biomedical engineer at Washington University in St. Louis is aspiring to develop an artificial or electronic nose that has potential applications in a number of domains, including medical diagnosis and homeland security.

But instead of starting from scratch to discover how the sense of smell works in the brain, Baranidharan Raman, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is looking to nature for clues. His lab is using relatively simple models of olfaction — fruit flies and locusts — to study their design and computing principles.

Raman has been awarded a five-year, $600,000 Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation to understand information processing principles in biological sense of smell, or olfaction, and to develop bio-inspired signal processing algorithms for artificial olfaction. His project is titled "Neural Dynamics, Olfactory Coding and Behavior."

Raman will use the genetic tool kit available in fruit flies to investigate how neural activity in individual sensory neurons in their antennae are translated into behavior. The larger locust model will be used to examine activity of ensembles of neurons in the insect brain and how they encode information about an odor.

"The Department of Biomedical Engineering is thrilled to learn the news of Barani Raman's NSF CAREER Award," says Steven George, MD, PhD Elvera and William Stuckenberg Professor and department chair. "This prestigious award is very well-deserved, and reflects Barani's intense commitment to understand some of the most basic mechanisms that control our sense of smell. Barani has recently published several important papers in high-impact journals such as Nature Communications, and I have no doubt the CAREER Award will support similar impactful work."

A particular problem that will be investigated in this grant is what Raman refers to as the issue of "invariant recognition." The smell of strawberry will be the same whether you smell it in a coffee shop or in a grocery store, he says. Yet, there are a number of non-salient chemicals that are also present in each of these situations, and these background cues vary from one environment to another.

"We do this task without even thinking about it," Raman says. "If you want to make an engineer humble, all you need to ask is to replicate the same capability using a robot equipped with sensors of his/her choosing. It is an incredibly challenging problem! The biological solution to this problem is what we are after, and it is practically relevant to any non-invasive chemical sensing application."

CAREER Awards support junior faculty who model the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. Raman is the 26th faculty member in the School of Engineering & Applied Science to receive the award.

With the award, Raman also will develop a set of integrated research and educational activities at graduate, undergraduate and K-12 levels that are at the interface of life, physical and computing sciences. He will sponsor an annual professional development workshop for St. Louis area K-12 teachers.

"A long-term goal is to come up with a device that does chemical sensing as intelligently as these insects do," Raman says. "You need to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. So, we are using these simpler model systems to study and mimic."

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