Meet the Postdocs – Emily Mayhew

Dr. Emily Mayhew received her PhD in food science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past three years, she has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Mainland Lab where she worked to predict odor characteristics of molecules based on their structural characteristics.

Emily Mayhew

Emily Mayhew, PhD

Q. You have been a researcher at Monell for three years! How did you end up here in the first place?
I got my bachelors degree in chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. And then I went straight to grad school at the University of Illinois. I got a PhD in food science and went to industry for a year. I worked as a sensory scientist and became very focused on the sense of smell as I worked with fragrance products. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to be an academic, so I left my industry job and then joined the Mainland Lab at Monell as a postdoctoral fellow.

Q. What is your goal as a researcher in the Mainland Lab?
In the Mainland Lab, our goal is simply to better understand our sense of smell and what different odorants smell like. More specifically, can we learn the rules for how stimuli and receptors are shaping our perception of odors?

Q. So how would you describe your specific role in answering that question?
I exclusively work with computers, chemicals, and people. I do studies where I present molecules or mixtures of molecules to human subjects, and I collect data about their perception of those aromas. I then use computers for predictive modeling. In other words, I’m trying to teach computers the rules for how the structure of an odorant or a mixture of odorous molecules relates to what people smell. And ultimately, based on these rules, the computers will learn to predict what odorants may smell like.

Q. And which of these components do you enjoy the most? Working with people or with computers?
I think I need both. I’m on the cusp of the introversion-extroversion spectrum, right in the middle. So I like working with people and enjoy the verbal aspect of the work I do, such as training people to describe their perception of different smells. But then I also like the deep focus. It’s my alone time, just me and my computer. That balance of the two aspects of my job is good for me.

Q. How does all of that relate to your scientific background?
My research right now actually brings together everything I’ve studied in the past. I studied human sensory perception, chemistry of foods, and also organic chemistry. And here I’m looking at the chemical properties of molecules and molecular mixtures, measuring human sensory perception of those molecules, and trying to build models to connect those things I see.

Q. It’s great to see how your career has progressed in a way that brought all your interests together!
What I find interesting is that you don’t always know in which direction your career is going. Eventually you get to a point like this where all the experiences I’ve had are relevant to the work that I’m doing now. I really like what I’m doing as a scientist; I study things that I think are interesting and they all build on each other.

Q. So how do you think these current experiences are also helping shape the future of your career?
Well, in fact, I’m leaving Monell soon. This November I will start a faculty position at Michigan State University. I will be starting as an assistant professor in their Department of Food Science. And part of the work I will be doing will build upon what I have learned while at Monell. I will be continuing some of the research that I’m doing now, trying to relate chemical composition to sensory perception.

Q. What else will you be doing as a professor?
This will be the first time that I’m directing a course. It’s a sensory evaluation course, which I really wanted to teach. So the role is going to be a mixture of teaching and research. In addition to that, I’m gonna be working with local food producers to help them understand the science of their products better and provide them with sensory insights. This will be a way to empower them with knowledge through which they can make good formulation decisions, make good packaging decisions, and get their small businesses off the ground!