For anyone who doesn't get why old book smell is special, meet these two scientists.

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič remember how it smells to enter the library of Dean and Chapter.

The library is nestled above the main floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, tucked away behind the southwest tower. Coming through the long stone corridors of the cathedral, a visitor is met with a tall wooden door, usually kept closed. The outside world might be full of the smell of fumes from central London’s busy roads or the incense that wafts through the church, but once you open that door, a different smell envelops you. It’s woody, musty, and a little bit familiar.

“It is a combination of paper, leather, wood ... and time,” said the pair.


Photograph by Graham Lacdao/Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Bembibre and Strlič are scientists from the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Many people might find the aroma of an old, yellowing book nostalgic, but for Bembibre and Strlič, it can be so much more.

For them, what we smell is just as much a part of our heritage as what we see or hear — and they’re on a mission to preserve it.

Matija Strlič smelling a 17th-century archival document at the National Archives of The Netherlands. Photo via Bembibre and Strlič, used with permission.

Though the first thing to come to mind when imagining a "historic odor" might be something like London’s Great Stink, odors don’t just need to be exceedingly unpleasant to be historically relevant. Anyone born after 1960 might get a whiff of childhood nostalgia when smelling Play-Doh’s sweet, yet pungent aroma, for example. Bembibre and Strlič want to create a scientific way to describe those kinds of smells.

For their latest work, the pair used both high-tech chemistry and an old-fashioned human nose to document the smell of books.

Volunteers were asked to describe either the aroma of the cathedral library (woody, smoky, vanilla) or antique books (chocolate, burnt, mothballs). Bembibre and Strlič then combined these descriptors with analyses of the faint, airborne scent-laden chemicals (known as VOCs) that the items or locations were giving off.

The pair then synthesized these findings into the Historic Book Odour Wheel, which pairs the chemical signatures and human descriptors together. Using it, you can see that a book with a rich caramel smell might be impregnated with the chemical furfural or one with an old-clothing funk might be giving off the chemical hexanal.

This wheel is a step toward creating a more standardized scientific vocabulary around aromas, which could be useful for many areas, not just books. Museums, for instance, could use this kind of chemical analysis to build scent profiles of modern cultural attractions or reverse engineer the smell of some long-gone food, event, or time.

"By documenting the words used by the visitors to describe a heritage smell, our study opens a discussion about developing a vocabulary to identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance,” said Bembibre in a press release.

Museums and organizations are already embracing scent as a part of our heritage.

The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, for example, used scents to recreate the authentic aroma of 1,000-year old Vikings. On the sweeter-smelling side of things, the town of Grasse, located in the hills of the French riviera, is pushing UNESCO to officially recognize their centuries-old perfumeries.

A worker sits up to her neck in rose petals at the Molinard perfume factory in Grasse. Photo from 1955. Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images

In 2001, Japan’s Environmental Ministry created a list of 100 natural and cultural sites with especially beautiful or poignant scents, such as the smell of sulfurous hot springs, lavender blossoms, or grilled eel.

“We hope that this will raise awareness of people at the local level and lead to a rediscovery of fragrant areas and their preservation,” said ministry official Tetsuo Ishii at the time.

“Our knowledge of the past is odourless,” the authors write in their paper. But our lives aren’t.

Extracting the smell of a 18th-century bible in the Spangle Bedroom at Knole House. Photo via National Trust/James Dobson.

Perhaps it’s fitting for us to finally consider odors as part of our historical heritage, given their special relationship with memory. Unlike sight, sound, or touch, our olfactory bulbs have direct connections to the parts of the brain that control emotion and memory. This could be why research has shown that odor memories are often unusually vivid and emotional.

“Every day we encounter hundreds of smells, and they have an impact on how we think, feel and behave," said the authors in an email. Though we tend to ignore them, we can all conjure up personal, emotional memories through smells, whether it's the scent of cherry blossoms, your dad's cologne, or even opening up a special book.

The authors are now inviting other scientists, philosophers, and researchers to talk about what a heritage smell archive would look like. Perhaps it’d be made up of physical samples or detailed chemical signatures or stories of human life. Perhaps all of the above.

Their work was published in the journal Heritage Science.

Some people are neat freaks and some people aren't. Most of us prefer a clean and tidy space, but not all of us are able to maintain one. Not only do people go through various stages of life that make keeping house trickier than other times, but some people have neurological, psychological, and emotional realities that make it harder than it is for others.

The problem is, a messy house is often a source of judgment and shame.

Licensed therapist and TikToker Kc Davis is turning that notion on its head with videos that explain how her own ADHD impacts her messiness and how she's learned "to clean as a messy person."

Davis shared a video showing her doing "a full reset" of her space while explaining the various reasons why some people don't have the executive function capabilities to "clean as they go." From ADHD to physical disabilities to having experienced abuse surrounding cleaning, some people find it impossible to keep things neat and tidy. For people who don't struggle with executive dysfunction, this video may not make sense, but for those who do, it's extremely validating.

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Some people are neat freaks and some people aren't. Most of us prefer a clean and tidy space, but not all of us are able to maintain one. Not only do people go through various stages of life that make keeping house trickier than other times, but some people have neurological, psychological, and emotional realities that make it harder than it is for others.

The problem is, a messy house is often a source of judgment and shame.

Licensed therapist and TikToker Kc Davis is turning that notion on its head with videos that explain how her own ADHD impacts her messiness and how she's learned "to clean as a messy person."

Davis shared a video showing her doing "a full reset" of her space while explaining the various reasons why some people don't have the executive function capabilities to "clean as they go." From ADHD to physical disabilities to having experienced abuse surrounding cleaning, some people find it impossible to keep things neat and tidy. For people who don't struggle with executive dysfunction, this video may not make sense, but for those who do, it's extremely validating.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."