Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Richard Gerkin

Richard Gerkin Receives National Research Service Award

Postdoctoral fellow Richard Gerkin recently received a National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health. The prestigious award will fund Gerkin, a member of Department Head Nathan Urban’s laboratory, for the next three years as he works to understand how the precise timing of neuronal activity plays a role encoding features of odor stimuli.

“Rick is a very talented and dedicated postdoc and is highly deserving of this award,” said Urban. “Rick possesses a unique combination of extremely strong quantitative background and excellent experimental skills. You could say that he has the mind of a mathematician and the hands of a physiologist. Rick has embarked on a project that will put his skills to good use.”

Gerkin’s interest in the sense of smell was piqued during an undergraduate Chemistry course at Stanford University, when he was assigned the task of identifying chemical compounds in a jar. While Gerkin ran numerous arduous tests, his classmate opened the jar, smelled the contents, and declared that the odor was reminiscent of mothballs. As a result, the classmate immediately and correctly deduced that the chemical compound was naphthalene, thereby saving hours of work.

After receiving a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh, Gerkin is finally able to combine his research and olfaction interests within his current postdoctoral fellowship. Over the past year and a half, he has been fine-tuning the electrophysiology technique required to address two specific aims.

Gerkin’s first aim concentrates on determining if and how odor stimulus information is encoded by action potential timing. “The timing could be relative to the onset of the stimulus, the respiratory cycle, local field potentials in the brain, action potential times in other neurons or some other clock signal,” said Gerkin.

The second aim focuses on the classic olfactory question of how well can one decode a stimulus in one sniff, and what information, if any, is carried in subsequent sniffs? One hypothesis is that continued sniffing can be used for odor localization. It is also debated whether each additional sniff carries the same or different information than the first. For instance, sniff one could decode the object as a fruit. Sniff two could differentiate between a lemon and lime. With each sniff, details could become clearer.

Understanding these details and answering these aims could unlock the mysteries of the powerful sense of smell, leading the way to treatments for olfactory disorders.